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Coughs and colds in children

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Most coughs and colds in children are caused by viral infections.
  • Cold viruses are spread easily through droplets from the nose and mouth of infected people.
  • Cold viruses can cause a runny nose, sore throat, cough and tiredness.
  • The best treatment for a cold virus is to rest at home so your child's immune system can fight the virus.
  • Cough syrups and cold medicines are not recommended for children.

What is the 'common cold'?

The common cold is an infection caused by a virus. There are many different viruses that can cause colds.

Colds are very common. Healthy preschool children often catch at least 6 colds per year.

Children are more likely to catch a cold than adults because their immune system is still developing. Sometimes, after recovering from a virus, your child may get sick with a different virus. It can sometimes seem like they are ‘always sick'. Most children catch fewer cold viruses as they get older.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Colds usually cause symptoms such as:

Less common symptoms include:

Cold and Flu Symptoms
This infographic helps you compare cold and flu symptoms.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes coughs and colds in children?

Most cough and cold symptoms are caused by viruses. Viruses are easily spread from person to person through droplets from the mouth and nose. These can be spread through coughing and sneezing.

Colds are not caused by:

  • getting cold or wet
  • going out with wet hair or bare feet

In some cases, cold symptoms can be caused by other conditions. These include:

Some of these conditions can be treated easily at home, but others may need treatment from your doctor.

When should I take my child to see a doctor for a cough or a cold?

If you think your child is having trouble breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately or go to your nearest emergency department.

You should speak with your doctor if:

  • your child is under 3 months old
  • their symptoms are very unpleasant or getting worse
  • you are concerned about your child
  • your child's symptoms do not improve after 48 hours
  • your child has a cough that continues for more than a few weeks after their illness
  • they refuse to drink or have an icy pole for over 6 hours
  • your child is urinating much less
  • they have a high fever

These symptoms may mean your child's illness is severe or is caused by something other than a cold virus.

Seek medical attention immediately if your child:

  • is having trouble breathing
  • is breathing much faster than usual
  • has 'sucking in' of the skin around their throat, just above their breast bone or between or under their ribs when breathing in
  • has pale or bluish skin or lips

You should also seek urgent medical help if your child has:

  • a rash that does not turn skin coloured when pressed
  • a headache or a stiff neck
  • a high fever

These are signs of meningococcal disease, which is a medical emergency. If you are worried that your child may have meningococcal disease, go to your nearest emergency department or call 000 for an ambulance.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How are coughs and colds diagnosed?

In most cases, your doctor can diagnose a cold by examining your child and asking you a few questions.

In some cases, your doctor may refer your child for tests, such as a swab to test for COVID-19.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How are coughs and colds treated?

Most coughs and colds are caused by viruses and get better on their own within a week.

The best treatment for most coughs and colds is rest.

If your child is unwell, keep them at home to rest and recover. This way, their immune system can fight the virus.

Keeping fluids up

Making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids will:

  • help ease a sore throat
  • keep them hydrated if they have a fever, vomiting or diarrhoea

Managing runny noses

Saline nose drops or spray can help thin mucus and make it easier to blow out.

Medicines

Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to ease the pain of a sore throat or headache. The strengths of these over-the-counter medicines differ, so be sure to check the dose instructions on the pack. Give your child medicines only as directed.

For children older than 12 months of age, honey can help ease their cough. Give your child a teaspoon or 2 of honey before bed.

There are some medicines you should not give to your child, such as:

  • decongestants
  • cough syrups

These medicines have not been shown to help children recover from coughs and colds and may be harmful to them.

Sedating antihistamines should not be used in children under 6 years old to treat colds or coughs, as they can cause serious harm.

Vitamins

Vitamin supplements are not necessary if your child has a cold. You may wish to speak to your doctor if you are concerned or want more information.

Special diets

You may have heard that special diets, or 'feeding a fever' and 'starving a cold' can treat colds or coughs. There is no evidence to support this.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial infections. Most coughs are caused by cold viruses, so antibiotics will not help your child get better any faster.

How can I prevent my child from getting a cough or cold?

It's not possible to prevent all coughs and colds. But there are things you can do to reduce the chance of your kids getting sick.

These include:

  • hand washing often, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • coughing or sneezing into your elbow
  • avoiding sharing utensils and cups with others
  • using tissues instead of hankies and throwing them out straight away after use

Eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep will also help keep your children healthy.

Keeping your child home from school and other activities when they are sick with a cold can stop them spreading their illness to others.

Some children continue to cough for many weeks after a cold — this is known as a post-viral cough. If your child has a cough but is otherwise well, check with your doctor if they can attend school.

Learn more about school exclusion periods.

What complications are linked to coughs and colds?

Most coughs and colds pass quickly with no medical treatment needed and no complications.

In some cases, your child may develop a bacterial infection after being sick with a cold virus. A bacterial infection may need treatment with antibiotics.

Resources and support

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For information in a language other than English, you can visit the Royal Children's Hospital website.

You can also:

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

Last reviewed: November 2023


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