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Colds and flu in babies and children

4-minute read

Colds and flu symptoms can be very similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. Even if your symptoms are mild, get tested for COVID-19 immediately — use the colds and flu Symptom Checker if you're not sure what to do. You can also learn more here about COVID-19 and parenting.

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

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Depending on the infection, symptoms of a cold include:

  • stuffy or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat and ears
  • cough
  • headache
  • red eyes
  • swollen lymph glands

Some children will develop a fever. They might feel sick or vomit, not feel like eating, or be more irritable than normal.

Symptoms usually last about a week.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is an illness caused by a virus. It is similar to a cold, but it can cause serious complications.

Children with influenza may have the symptoms of a cold as well as muscle aches, shivering, and feeling hot and cold.

When should I see a doctor?

Most colds run their course and get better on their own. However, very occasionally children may develop complications such as an ear infection, laryngitis or croup, bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Sometimes a child's coughing may be due to asthma rather than a cold. If your child coughs through winter, or their coughing is brought on by exercise, or happens only at night, they may have asthma.

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

  • a high fever (see a doctor straight away for any fever in a baby less than 3 months)
  • a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • wheezing
  • periods of breathlessness (breathing very rapidly) or difficulty breathing
  • bluish or very pale skin
  • inability or unwillingness to feed
  • drowsiness in your baby
  • is not drinking
  • is not passing urine
  • is vomiting a lot
  • has a bad headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • a rash that does not disappear if you hold a glass against it
  • decreasing alertness, awareness and activity
  • any worsening of the illness or increased distress

Managing colds and flu in babies and young children

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

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.

Young children

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

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.

Preventing colds and flu

If your child attends 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.

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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021


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