1 October 2014

Common cold in children

Colds are common. Children can catch as many as ten colds every year.

The symptoms of a cold include throat irritation, sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose. Nasal discharge is watery at first, but may become thick yellow or green later on. The child may also have a cough, headache, mild fever, loss of appetite and fatigue.

Cold symptoms clear up within a few days, though it is not uncommon for cough to persist for about two weeks.

Helping your child
  • Colds and most respiratory infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are not helpful since these medicines are only effective against bacteria. Antibiotics do not help children with colds to heal faster, and indeed they may cause unnecessary side-effects and increase the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Paracetamol or ibuprofen may be used to alleviate pain and to control fever.
  • The best way to take the child’s temperature is by using a digital thermometer held in the armpit. Do not use a ‘forehead’ thermometer as it shows the skin rather than the body temperature. A temperature over 99.5°F or 37.5 °C is fever. Treat the fever only if the child seems to be distressed by it.
  • It is normal for sick children to lose their appetite during the course of the illness. Encourage the child to drink plenty of fluids (water, milk, juices or warm drinks) to prevent dehydration.
  • Children younger than two years should not be given cough medicines without a prescription. Cough medicines are not very effective in children. Parents should be very careful to give the correct dose, using a syringe or the spoon provided (rather than a household spoon). 
  • Parents should keep in mind that coughing is the natural way for the body to clear catarrh and secretions from the airways. Therefore cough suppressants are rarely used in children. A warm honey and lemon drink may help to relieve a dry throat and cough.
  • Saline drops or spray help clear nose congestion in babies. Gentle suction may also help clear the nostrils. A decongestant spray may be used for a few days in older children (but decongestant syrups are best avoided in children as they are probably not effective and may cause serious side effects such as hallucinations and aggressive behaviour).
  • Sick children should rest at home but not necessarily in bed. They may return to school when they get better.

When to call the doctor 

Take your child to the doctor in the following circumstances:
  1. A baby aged less than three months who develops a fever higher than 38°C.
  2. An infant with fever and who looks ill, is not drinking enough, or seem to be distressed, lethargic or unresponsive.
  3. If the fever persists for several days.
  4. The child is having difficulty to breath or is too breathless to talk or drink.
  5. The child has a barking cough and harsh breathing sounds.
  6. A spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on the body that does not fade when a glass is pressed against it.
  7. If the child complains of headache, severe sore throat or earache. 
  8. If the child’s condition is getting worse.
This article was published in Smart Supermarket Magazine, October 2014.