PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Relieving Kids’ Cold Symptoms

Posted on Feb 11, 2014

Young child blowing her nose.

Parents are often surprised to learn that young children typically have between seven to 10 colds (viral respiratory infections) a year for the first few years of life, especially if a child is in daycare or preschool.

Although colds can create a lot of misery for children and parents, most of them resolve within two weeks. The typical course is fever (and often a sore throat) for the first one to three days of illness followed by a runny nose, congestion and coughing. These symptoms worsen during the first week and then gradually improve over the second week.

“Parents often have two pressing questions when their child has a cold,” says Cara Barone, M.D., a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “They want to know how to ease their child’s discomfort and how to know when it is something more serious.”

Dr. Barone offers three tips for making children comfortable while the cold runs its course.

For younger children, skip over-the-counter cold medicines. These are not safe for children under 4 years old, and generally not advisable until a child is 6 or older. If your child is older than 6, you can try these medications, but they usually aren’t that effective at relieving symptoms. Always read cold medicine labels carefully, follow the dosage information and use the dosage cup supplied.

Provide TLC. Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. Steam from either a warm bath or humidifier, and plenty of fluids and liquids go a long way to easing discomfort. You can also try vapor rubs under the nose for children older than 2. A menthol (Vicks) vaporizer can be helpful in children less than 2 years old. Honey (1 tablespoon or so) for children older than 1 year can help ease a cough, especially at night. Sometimes having an infant sleep in a bouncy chair can help reduce post-nasal drip and coughing at night. For older children, prop their heads up on some pillows while they sleep.

Help clear little noses. Infants may need help clearing their nasal passages, especially if the congestion is affecting your baby’s ability to nurse or bottle-feed well. This can be done with nasal saline drops quite effectively. When your baby is lying down, squirt a drop or two of nasal saline into the nasal passages. When you lift your baby up, she will most likely cry or sneeze, which removes mucous and helps clear the nostrils. At times, you might need to use saline drops and a nasal aspirator (such as the NoseFrida or a batter-powered nasal aspirator). Children over 2 years old have larger nasal passages, and you can teach them how to blow their noses.

While most colds gradually improve over one to two weeks and eventually go away, there are some symptoms that warrant a call or trip to your child’s doctor. These include:

  • Difficulty breathing. Signs may include breathing faster than usual, retracting (drawing in the ribs with breathing), head bobbing, grunting (making sounds while breathing out) and flaring of the nostrils.
  • Fever. In babies less than 2 months of age, greater than 100.4 (measured rectally), or a fever greater than 101.5 for more than three days in an older infant or child. (Read this blog post for more info about fevers.)
  • Returning fever. If a fever went away in the first few days of illness and then returns, this could mean that your child has a secondary bacterial infection such as pneumonia or an ear infection.
  • Not drinking enough. Your child is not drinking well and has decreased urine output.
  • A worsening cough during the first or second week of illness, especially if accompanied with fever or difficulty breathing.
  • Congestion or cough that lasts longer than three weeks.
  • A “seal-like” deep barky cough and hoarse voice. This could indicate your child has croup.

You won’t be able to stop your children from getting colds, but helping them get enough sleep, a healthy diet and frequent hand washing can go a long way to keeping them healthy.