What to do when your child has a cold

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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 about six 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

Most colds are caused by a rhinovirus or coronavirus 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, says the American College of Physicians. 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 cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer to increase the air moisture in your child’s room.
  • Put saltwater drops in your child’s nostrils to ease a stuffy nose.
  • Dab petroleum jelly under the nose to soothe raw skin.
  • Encourage your child to rest and avoid vigorous activity.
  • 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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), parents should not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children younger than 2 years old. These products could be harmful to young children if they’re given incorrectly or if more than one product with the same active ingredient is used.

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. The FDA reminds parents that 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, these are signs that you should bring to the attention of your child’s doctor:

  • A fever that lasts several days or goes above 103 degrees.
  • Chills, chest pain or shortness of breath.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Ear pain or drainage from the ear.
  • Blue lips, skin or fingernails.
  • Symptoms that last for more than 10 days.

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 not to 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.

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