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Colds and flu in babies and children

4-minute read

Very young children may have had little or no previous contact with the viruses that cause flu and colds, so they will have low resistance to infection. It's useful to know that children can get sick much more quickly than adults.

If your child has a cough, it is most likely to be caused by a cold. If they attend a child care centre, it is a good idea to let the director know.

Centres have guidelines on when and for how long sick children should stay away to minimise the risk of the disease spreading to other children.

Not all coughing is caused by infections. Asthma is the second most common cause of coughing.

If your child coughs through winter, or their coughing is brought on by exercise, or happens only at night, they may have asthma.

You should also see a doctor if your child wheezes, a sign of irritated airways.

If your baby or child has asthma, be extra careful and watchful during bouts of colds or flu and protect them from passive smoking. Consider immunising them and yourselves against influenza. Children are more likely to get infections of the airways if someone in the family smokes at home.

Babies

Young babies with upper respiratory tract infections sniffle a lot and may cough a little. Even if your baby seems to be breathing comfortably, they may have trouble feeding if their noses are blocked. Proper feeding is important to avoid dehydration and loss of weight.

Babies with colds and flu need:

  • cuddles and reassurance
  • smaller, more frequent feeds - paediatric (but never adult) nasal drops may help with breathing while your child feeds, but drops should never be used for more than a couple of days without consulting your doctor
  • extra sleep.

Seek urgent medical advice if your baby or young child has:

  • a persistent cough
  • periods of breathlessness or difficulty breathing
  • a high fever (see a doctor straight away for any fever in a baby less than 3 months)
  • a bad cough
  • bluish or very pale skin
  • inability or unwillingness to feed
  • drowsiness in your baby
  • isn’t drinking
  • is vomiting a lot
  • has a bad headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • has a rash that doesn’t disappear if you hold a glass against it.

Young children

Like babies, young children with infections also need rest, warmth, nourishing food and plenty of fluids.

Seek urgent medical advice about:

  • vomiting or a high fever
  • a high fever that does not respond to paracetamol
  • pain or fever due to infections in the ears, sinuses, tonsils or chest
  • noisy breathing or difficulty with breathing
  • any worsening of the illness or increased distress.

Treatment and symptom relief

Medicines will not prevent or cure colds or the flu. They are viral infections that are dealt with by your child’s immune system. They have to be let 'run their course', which usually takes from a few days up to a week to 10 days.

If your child has one or more of the following symptoms, you should take them to see the doctor:

  • won’t drink fluids
  • vomits frequently
  • has an intense headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • has difficulty breathing
  • has a high fever that doesn’t get better with paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • is younger than three months old and has a fever
  • has a rash that doesn’t disappear when you hold a glass against it
  • has a cough that lasts more than three weeks.

Also see your doctor if your child doesn’t show some improvement over 2 days, or if you’re worried.

Babies can be given paracetamol or ibuprofen in liquid form to relieve uncomfortable symptoms such as pain. Make sure to read the label for the recommended dose.

You can give older children paracetamol as tablets. Be sure to use them only as recommended and to store them out of the child’s reach.

Do not give aspirin to babies or young children as aspirin may have serious side-effects.

Cough and cold medicines and over-the-counter products such as nasal sprays should not be given to children except on the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or nurse. Learn more about colds and flu.

Things to remember

  • Colds and flu should get better in a week to 10 days.
  • Watch for breathing problems and other infections if your child has a cold or flu.
  • Medication can ease some symptoms, but must be used carefully. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse about all medicines for children.

Last reviewed: May 2017

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