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It is common for young children to get the odd cough, cold or ear infection. Read further to find out more about these common childhood ailments.
In children cough is a common symptom which is commonly caused by a cold. Usually a cough gets better on its own and is not serious. If your child is feeding, drinking, eating and breathing normally and there’s no wheezing, a cough isn’t usually anything to worry about.
If your child has a bad cough that won’t go away, see your doctor. Causes of a more serious cough in children can include:
Signs of a more serious cause of a childhood cough can include:
- high temperature
- persistent (longer than 2 weeks) or an unusual cough
- difficulty breathing
- the child is listless, overly tired or in discomfort
- your child's skin changes colour and turns blue or very pale
- they are not drinking fluids or passing urine
See the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms. If your child seems to be having trouble breathing, seek medical attention urgently or call an ambulance, even if it’s the middle of the night.
Although it’s upsetting to hear your child cough, coughing helps clear away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat.
The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral illness, such as a cold, the flu or COVID-19. Your child’s throat may be dry and sore for a day or 2 before a cold starts. Infant or child dosage paracetamol or ibuprofen can be given to reduce the pain.
Most sore throats clear up on their own after a few days. See the doctor if your child has trouble breathing or swallowing, is drooling more than usual, has a stiff or swollen neck or has a fever.
It is normal for a preschool child to have at least 6 or more colds a year. This is because there are hundreds of different cold viruses and young children have no immunity to any of them as they've never had them before. Gradually they build up immunity and get fewer colds.
Antibiotics don’t help with colds as they are a viral illness. Most colds get better in 5 to 7 days. Here are some suggestions on how to ease the symptoms in your child:
- Increase the amount of fluid your child normally drinks.
- Saline nose drops can help loosen dried nasal secretions and relieve a stuffy nose. Ask your pharmacist, doctor or early childhood nurse about them.
- If your child has a fever, pain or discomfort, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help. There are child and infant products that will state on the packet how much you should give children of different ages.
- Encourage the whole family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.
- Avoid nasal decongestants. They don’t help with a cold and can causes side effects like fast heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia.
Ear infections are common in babies and small children. They often follow a cold and sometimes cause a temperature. A child may pull or rub at an ear, but babies can’t always tell where pain is coming from and may just cry and seem uncomfortable.
If your child has an earache and is distressed but otherwise well, give them infant or child dose paracetamol or ibuprofen. Don’t put any oil, eardrops or cotton buds into your child’s ear unless your doctor advises you to do so. Most ear infections are caused by viruses, which can’t be treated with antibiotics. They will just get better by themselves.
If your child is young or very unwell, your GP may prescribe a short course of antibiotics if there is a risk of bacterial infection.
If you think your child may have an ear infection, take them to see the GP.
Repeated middle ear infections (otitis media) may lead to 'glue ear' (otitis media with effusion), where sticky fluid builds up and can affect your child’s hearing. This may lead to unclear speech or behavioural problems.
Your doctor will give you advice on treating glue ear.
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Last reviewed: October 2020