Coping with children’s common cold

What is a cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold to develop.

What are the symptoms of the common cold?

The most common symptoms of a cold are nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and possibly a low grade fever.

How often do children come down with a cold?

To many parents, it may seem like their babies are sick all of the time. This is because on average, infants and children can have up to 7-10 colds per year (more if they attend daycare), each one lasting 7-14 days. If your baby catches 10 colds per year and each one lasts 14 days, your child could possibly be sick 140 days (over 1/3) of the year, and that would still be considered normal!

Should I take my child to the doctor to get a prescription for antibiotics if I suspect a cold?

In most cases no. The common cold is caused by a virus. Antibiotics work to treat bacterial infections, NOT viral ones. Most colds resolve on their own after 7-10 days. It is possible, however, that your child may develop a secondary bacterial infection (such as a sinus or ear infection) on top of a cold. If you notice any of the following symptoms you should have your child seen by a doctor:

  • Fever of >39.5C (if baby is <3 months fever of >37.8C) or fever lasting longer than 3 days
  • Symptoms worsening or lasting longer than 10 days
  • Difficulty breathing (flaring of nostrils, rapid breathing, strained neck muscles, bluish lips or finger tips)
  • Earache (pulling at ear) or drainage from ear

How do you help your little one feel better when she is sick?

A few measures that don’t involve medicine can help your child feel significantly better. If possible, try these options first. Medications should only be used as a last resort. Here are some non-drug measures that can help your little one feel better:

  • Saline drops (2-3 drops per nostril as needed) help to relieve congestion. Use of these drops, followed by a nasal aspirator (such as the Hydrasense Nasal Aspirator), can help your child breathe better.
  • Ensure your child is well hydrated by breast/formula feeding often. Have older babies and children drink more sugar-free fluids (water is preferred)
  • Run a cool mist humidifier in your child’s room

When it comes to medication, children are not simply miniature adults. There are many physiological differences between babies, toddlers, young children, and adults, which means that what is safe for one age group may not be for another.

In 2008, Health Canada made the decision that cough and cold products should not be used in children under the age of 6. The reasons behind this change were many, including:

  • Lack of evidence that cough and cold products were effective in this age group
  • Evidence of misuse, overdose and rare-side effects raised concern about children’s safety
  • Inability of children to communicate side effects of these medications

When it comes to medications to help treat cold symptoms in children under the age of 6, there are only two available over-the-counter: acetaminophen and ibuprofen. These can both be used for pain (sore throat/headache etc.) and fever (temperature of >37.2 C) when treating common cold symptoms. Ibuprofen can be used to treat inflamed, swollen nasal passages associated with congestion. See the chart below for more information on these medications.

Medication (generic name/brandname) Ages Uses Time Between Doses Max .# doses/24hrs Administer Do not use in:
AcetaminophenTylenol®, Tempra® 0+ months fever, pain 4-6 hours 5 With or without food Those with liver disease, kidney disease or allergies to any ingredient.
IbuprofenAdvil®, Motrin® 6+ months fever, pain, inflammation 6-8 hours 4 With food Those with an allergy to aspirin or any ingredient. Caution in those with asthma.

*Aspirin should never be used in anyone under the age of 18 due to the risk of Reye’s Syndrome, a serious condition that may result in death.

All medications should be used sparingly in children, as they are not without side effects. Ask your pharmacist to help you identify which medication will work best for your child, and how to administer the correct dose. 

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