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A Pediatrician Answers Parents’ Questions About The Common Cold

Young boy blowing nose

Kids and colds go together like peanut butter and jelly. But when should you be concerned, and what is the best strategy for seeing your child through this viral illness? We asked pediatrician Dr. Joan Thode with LG Health Physicians Roseville Pediatrics.

How Does a Cold Differ from the Flu?

While the common cold and the flu are both caused by viruses, influenza viruses are notoriously aggressive with the invasion. The flu presents much more rapidly, with the typically simultaneous onset of multiple symptoms that most commonly include high fever, chills, intense body aches, chest tightness or pain, bad sore throat, cough, and intense fatigue. These symptoms also are typically intense for three to five days before improvement, though it’s not uncommon for longer courses that can take seven to 10 days. Seeing a health-care provider for appropriate diagnosis and discussion of treatment and comfort care is important for differentiating the flu from the common cold.

How Long Can I Expect My Child’s Cold to Last?

While there are literally thousands of viruses, most that cause colds follow a similar timeline in kids. The symptoms of runny nose, cough, fever and sore throat typically worsen over the first three to four days, then start to improve. Your child may be more tired than usual during this time, but should start to perk up around day four or five—even though the symptoms of cough and congestion may persist a bit longer.

What Can I Do to Help Ease the Symptoms of a Cold?

The goal is to keep your child as comfortable as possible, encouraging lots rest and liquids.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) can help. Remember, these drugs are for comfort, not specifically fevers. If your child has a fever but is comfortable and playful, there is no need to treat it.

While acetaminophen is safe for children of any age, ibuprofen should not be given until a child is 6 months of age or older. Dosing for infants and young toddlers is based on your child’s weight, so check with your doctor to avoid an incorrect dose. Always measure your child’s medications with a syringe, not a cup.

Will Antibiotics Help My Child’s Cold?

Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics, which only fight bacterial infections, will not be effective.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

If your child seems to be working very hard to breathe, is breathing faster than normal, or is having trouble eating or drinking due to breathlessness, a prompt evaluation by a doctor is very important.

With a few exceptions, fevers don’t typically last more than 4-5 days. If your child has had fever for 5 consecutive days or more, it’s also time to see a doctor.

My Child Is Still Coughing. Should I Be Concerned?

Throat irritation and cough caused by post-nasal drainage are common symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, as well as byproducts of the immune system’s response to the infection. A cough can last up to two weeks after the cold virus is gone.

Pediatricians call this a protracted cough. It doesn’t mean your child is still sick. It’s a sign that his or her body is appropriately clearing mucous. These coughs typically become drier and less frequent over time. Don’t be surprised if coughs worsen when your child lays down or first wakes in the morning.

Is It a Good Idea to Give My Child Cough Syrup?

Simply stated: don’t give young kids cough syrup. These medications can be dangerous for several reasons.

  • Cough syrup and cold medicines often have multiple ingredients, including acetaminophen or ibuprofen, increasing the risk for overdose if your child is already taking these drugs separately.
  • Cough syrup safety hasn’t been studied in kids under the age of 6.
  • Studies comparing the effect of cough medicines to placebos have shown that these medications do not even work for this age group.
  • The livers of infants and young kids are also not always able to metabolize many of the additives in cold preparations, putting kids at risk for increased side effects and potentially even sedation.

But there’s hope! The best treatment for a protracted cough in children 1 year of age and older is a little honey. You can give it to your child on a spoon or mixed with warm water. Just keep in mind that honey should NEVER be given to an infant under the age of 12 months, due to the risk of botulism. For children under 12 months of age, the best treatment is TLC and suctioning excess mucous with a bulb syringe.

What Is The Best Way to Avoid Spreading a Cold to Other Family Members?

Hand hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of both viral and bacterial infections at home and in the public. Make hand washing a habit as soon as you enter the house. Use antibacterial soap and sing the happy birthday song twice or the ABC's slowly once to allow for the antibacterial soap to have full effect.

author name

Joan B. Thode, MD

Joan B. Thode, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with LG Health Physicians Roseville Pediatrics.

Education: Undergraduate–Franklin & Marshall College; Medical School–George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Residency–NYU Langone Medical Center.

Schedule an Appointment Call: 717-569-6481

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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