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What to do when your child has a cold

Colds can't be cured or cut short, but you can help make your child more comfortable.

As a parent, you want to protect your child from harm and illness whenever possible. But the common cold is one illness you often can't prevent. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American children get six or more colds every year.

Though you can't cure or shorten these infections, there are ways to soothe the symptoms and reduce your child's risk of catching the next cold.

Behind the sneeze

Colds are most often caused by a rhinovirus that infects the upper respiratory tract—the nose, throat, sinuses, ears and breathing tubes that lead into the lungs.

Your child may catch a cold by breathing in virus particles left in the air by someone else's sneeze or cough, or by touching a surface that has virus particles on it and then touching his or her eyes, nose or mouth.

Children usually have more frequent colds than adults because of their close contact with lots of other children at school and day care. Their young immune systems are also less likely to have built up defenses against the most common cold viruses.

Easing the illness

Colds cannot be cured. Antibiotics aren't effective against the viruses that cause them, the AAP says. Fortunately, colds go away without treatment. Most children will recover in 7 to 10 days, according to the AAP.

In the meantime, you can make your child more comfortable with these suggestions from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the AAP:

  • Give your child lots of fluids.
  • Make sure your child eats nutritious meals, even if the meals are small.
  • Run a humidifier to increase the air moisture in your child's room if the air is dry.
  • Put saline drops in your child's nostrils to ease a stuffy nose.
  • Dab petroleum jelly under the nose to soothe raw skin.
  • Consider giving acetaminophen for a fever. Never give aspirin, which has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a serious disease that can damage the liver and brain. Ask your child's healthcare provider if you have questions about whether to give acetaminophen.

According to the AAP, parents should not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children 4 and younger, and should only give these medicines to kids 5 or 6 years old if told to do so by a doctor.

Parents who are unsure about whether to give a cough or cold product to their child, or which product to choose, should talk to their child's healthcare provider. Cough and cold medicines do not cure the common cold; they only treat the symptoms. Children will get better with time.

When to call the doctor

Rest, fluids and time are usually enough to take care of a cold, but sometimes it can turn into a more serious infection.

According to the AAFP and the AAP, these are signs that you should bring to the attention of your child's doctor:

  • A fever that lasts more than three days or goes above 103 degrees.
  • Chest pain or shortness of breath.
  • Ear pain or drainage from the ear.
  • Blue lips, skin or fingernails.

Skipping the next round

Though you can't protect your child from colds completely, you can take steps to make frequent infection less likely:

  • Teach your child to wash his or her hands often, especially before eating.
  • Make it a rule to not share eating utensils or drinking glasses.
  • If possible, reduce your child's close, prolonged exposure to people with colds.
  • Reduce your child's exposure to cigarette smoke, which increases the risk of respiratory infections of all kinds.

Also keep in mind that healthy children are less prone to illness, period. Encourage your child to eat healthfully and get plenty of sleep and exercise. A healthy body and strong immune system help protect your child from all viruses, including the ones that cause colds.

Reviewed 4/10/2023

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