Common Cold in Children

What is the common cold in children?

The common cold (upper respiratory infection) is one of the most common illnesses in children. Each year it leads to more healthcare provider visits and missed days from school and work than any other illness. Millions of people in the U.S. will get a cold each year.

Here are a few facts:

  • Most children will have at least 6 to 8 colds a year. Children who go to daycare will have more.

  • Colds may occur less often after age 6.

  • Children are more likely to have colds during fall and winter.

What causes the common cold in a child?

Colds happen when a virus irritates (inflames) the lining of the nose and throat. Colds can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. But most colds are caused by rhinoviruses.

To catch a cold, your child must come in contact with someone who is infected with one of the cold viruses. The cold virus can be spread:

  • Through the air. If a person with a cold sneezes or coughs, small amounts of the virus can go into the air. Then if your child breathes in that air, the virus will stick inside your child’s nose (nasal membrane).

  • By direct contact. This means that your child touches an infected person. A cold is easy for children to spread. That’s because they touch their nose, mouth, and eyes often and then touch other people or objects. This can spread the virus. It’s important to know that viruses can be spread through objects, such as toys, that have been touched by someone with a cold.

Which children are at risk for the common cold?

All children are at risk for the common cold. They are more likely than adults to get a cold. Here are some reasons why:

  • Less resistance. A child’s immune system is not as strong as an adult’s when it comes to fighting cold germs.

  • Winter season. Most respiratory illnesses happen in fall and winter, when children are indoors and around more germs. The humidity also drops during this season. This makes the passages in the nose drier and at greater risk for infection.

  • School or daycare. Colds spread easily when children are in close contact.

  • Hand-to-mouth contact. Children are likely to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth without washing their hands. This is the most common way germs are spread.

What are the symptoms of the common cold in a child?

Cold symptoms start from 1 to 3 days after your child has been in contact with the cold virus. Symptoms often last about 1 week. But they may last up to 2 weeks. Symptoms may be a bit different for each child.

In babies, cold symptoms may include:

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Fussiness

  • Stuffy nose (nasal congestion)

  • Sometimes vomiting and diarrhea

  • Fever

Older children may have:

  • Stuffy, runny nose

  • Scratchy, tickly throat

  • Watery eyes

  • Sneezing

  • Mild hacking cough

  • Congestion

  • Sore throat

  • Achy muscles and bones

  • Headaches

  • Low-grade fever

  • Chills

  • Watery discharge from the nose that thickens and turns yellow or green

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)

These symptoms may seem like other health problems, such as the flu. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is the common cold diagnosed in a child?

Most common colds are diagnosed based on symptoms. But cold symptoms may seem like other bacterial infections, allergies, and health problems.

How is the common cold treated in a child?

There is no cure for the common cold. Most children recover from colds on their own. Antibiotics don’t work against viral infections, so they are not prescribed. Instead, treatment is focused on helping ease your child’s symptoms until the illness passes. To help your child feel better:

  • Give your child plenty of fluids, such as water, electrolyte solutions, apple juice, and warm soup. This helps prevent fluid loss (dehydration).

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • To ease nasal congestion, try saline nasal sprays. You can buy them without a prescription, and they're safe for children. These are not the same as nasal decongestant sprays. These may make symptoms worse.

  • Keep your child away from tobacco smoke. Smoke will make the irritation in the nose and throat worse.

  • Use children’s-strength medicine for symptoms. Discuss all over-the-counter (OTC) products with your child’s healthcare provider before using them, especially for the first time. Don't give OTC cough and cold medicines to a child younger than 4 years old unless the provider tells you to do so. For children between 4 and 6 years old, only use OTC products when advised by your child's healthcare provider.

  • Never give aspirin to a child age 19 or younger unless directed by your child's provider. It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.

  • Never give ibuprofen to an infant age 6 months or younger.

  • Keep your child home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours.

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier in your child's room at night to make breathing easier.

What are possible complications of the common cold in a child?

Some of the complications that might occur if your child gets a cold include:

  • Ear infections

  • Sinus infections

  • Pneumonia

  • Throat infections

How can I help prevent the common cold in my child?

To help children stay healthy:

  • Keep children away from people with a cold.

  • Teach children to wash their hands often. Have them wash their hands before eating, and after using the bathroom, playing with animals, or coughing or sneezing. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel for times when soap and water aren’t available. The gel should be at least 60% alcohol.

  • Remind children not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • Make sure toys and play areas are correctly cleaned, especially if several children are playing together.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Contact your child’s healthcare provider right away if your infant is 3 months or younger and has cold symptoms. Also contact your child's provider if your child has:

  • A fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the healthcare provider

  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days

  • Symptoms that don't get better after taking over-the-counter medicines

Key points about the common cold in children

  • The common cold is one of the most common illnesses. Most children will have at least 6 to 8 colds a year.

  • Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses.

  • Your child can catch a cold through airborne droplets from or through direct contact with a sick person.

  • Sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose are common symptoms. Symptoms often last about 1 week.

  • There is no cure for the common cold. The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms until your child feels better.

  • Colds can be prevented by washing hands often.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s healthcare provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.