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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Colds and children: Insights for parents

Photo of child washing hands
Keeping hands washed, and sneezes and coughs well covered can help to keep cold germs from spreading.

Everyone knows the symptoms of a cold: sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, and feeling cranky. Headache and a low-grade fever often come with it. The symptoms can linger for a week or more.

If you're the parent of a young child, however, dealing with colds may seem almost never-ending. On average, normal preschoolers get six to eight colds and other respiratory infections every year. While handwashing and other measures remain very important, colds are so easy to catch, they can be hard to avoid.

Now that we're in the middle of the cold and flu season, Terri Felix, a pediatrician at the UC Davis Medical Group clinic in Carmichael, has some insights into how to handle the misery that a cold brings to an active child's life.

“I tell the parents of my young patients to pamper their child for the first few days with plenty of rest, fluids and some acetaminophen if a child is very uncomfortable,” Felix says. “There are also lots of cold remedies in stores and pharmacies, but most you probably won't need unless your child's symptoms are bad enough to prevent a good night's sleep.”

Felix also notes that parents should avoid giving aspirin to children under 18 unless recommended by a doctor. It has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal condition sometimes seen in children with certain viral infections who have been treated with aspirin.

To fight congestion without drugs, parents can try some homemade nose drops. Mix one-quarter teaspoon salt in a cup of lukewarm water. With your child lying down, use an eyedropper or bulb syringe to put a few drops in each nostril. This should loosen things up and make it easier for the child to blow his or her nose. Drinking warm fluids also helps. Running a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier at night can also help make breathing easier.

When is a “cold” bad enough to visit the doctor? Felix says don't hesitate to call if you're at all concerned.

“In general, bring your child in if cold symptoms seem to last more than two weeks or if things get worse after a week,” says Felix. “Come in right away when a rash is involved, or if the child has a fever that doesn't subside in a few days. A child who has ear pain, severe pain anywhere, trouble breathing or wheezing, also needs to be seen. No matter what the symptoms, trust your parental intuition if your child seems to be sicker than what you'd expect with a run-of-the-mill cold.”

Many parents also wonder at what point a child needs antibiotics. Most cold-like conditions are caused by viruses, which don't respond to antibiotics. There is considerably more reluctance to prescribe antibiotics these days without clear indications that they are needed. Experts now realize that overuse of antibiotics contributes to the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Whether or not a child needs antibiotics depends on many factors; but in general, Felix says, doctors consider using them in the following circumstances:

  • Ear infection

  • Sore throat, if a strep test is positive

  • Long-lasting sinus infection (thick or green mucus does not necessarily mean a sinus infection; this is often normal during a viral cold)

  • Coughs that may be due to bacterial infections (most coughs, however, are caused by viruses)

The good news in all this: Kids will outgrow those frequent childhood colds. And keeping those hands washed and sneezes and coughs well covered can help to keep those cold germs from spreading.