How to Identify Cold Symptoms in Children

Reviewed on 6/16/2021
cold symptoms in children
Here’s what to look for to determine whether your child is sick with a cold

Looking after a child is certainly not child’s play. Children have their own unique ways of expressing themselves, which may not always be easy to understand for adults. This is especially true when a child isn’t feeling well.

Colds are one of the most common illnesses that affect children as well as adults, since colds can be caused by several viruses. On average, a healthy child may get a cold up to 5-7 times each year. Most symptoms go away on their own and can be managed at home. Here’s what to look for.

What are signs and symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms in a child will generally begin 2-3 days after exposure to a source of infection. While most colds subside within a week, some may last longer. If your child has a cold, they may have the following signs and symptoms:

Fever is generally mild, although some children may get a high fever (over 100.4  degrees F) that needs medical attention. Nasal discharge may be clear or watery or become yellowish or greenish and sticky. Some children may also develop stomach symptoms, such as diarrhea and vomiting

Since cold symptoms often resemble allergies, bacterial infections, flu, or COVID-19, contact a health professional to confirm your child’s diagnosis.

Is a cold contagious?

Yes, colds are contagious and can spread from person to person in various ways:

  • Colds usually spread through the air. Virus particles are released in the air when the infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and can travel up to 12 feet through the air.
  • Infection can also spread through objects (fomites). This happens when a person touches an infected object (such as furniture, clothes, or utensils) and then touches their mouth or nose without washing or sanitizing their hands.
  • Contagiousness is high during the initial days of illness (the first 2-4 days after symptoms appear). It can, however, still be contagious even weeks after the initial symptoms appear.

How to treat cold symptoms in your child

Most children recover on their own with care at home. Since colds are caused by a viral infection, you must not give your child antibiotics. 

To help your child recover from cold, you should:

  • Ensure that your child takes enough rest.
  • Give them plenty of fluids. These include water, homemade vegetable and fruit juices, electrolyte solutions, warm soups, and broths.
  • Use a saline nasal spray to relieve nasal congestion. Saline nasal sprays are available over-the-counter (OTC) and are safe to use. Do not give any decongestant nasal sprays unless advised by the doctor.
  • Run a cool-mist humidifier in your child's room, especially at night. This will make breathing easier and help them get better sleep.
  • Give your child OTC pain and fever medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, according to the label or doctor’s instructions. Do not give ibuprofen to an infant younger than 6 months. Make sure you give the doses within the prescribed limit. Beware of the multidrug formulations. A warm bath or a heating pad may also help relieve aches and pains. 
  • Avoid giving aspirin to any children under the age 19 unless advised by your child’s doctor. Aspirin use in young people can cause a rare but potentially fatal condition called Reye syndrome.
  • Keep your child away from smoke, including tobacco smoke.
  • Dab petroleum jelly or coconut oil on the skin around the nostrils to soothe raw skin.
  • If your child is over 6 years old, you can give them hard candy or cough drops to relieve a sore throat.

SLIDESHOW

ADHD Symptoms in Children See Slideshow

When should I call a doctor?

Contact a doctor if your child develops serious symptoms, such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Fever of 103 degrees F or more, or a fever of 101 degrees F or more lasting for more than a day
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Excessive coughing or coughing up a lot of mucus
  • Inability to take in food or fluids
  • Pain in the ear, chest, or abdomen
  • Progressive worsening of any symptoms

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References
Boston Children's Hospital. Cold Symptoms & Causes. https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/c/cold/symptoms-and-causes

Seattle Children’s Hospital. Colds. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/colds/

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