Although children's colds are usually mild illnesses, parents often feel a need to do something
to relieve our children's discomfort and speed their recovery. With all you hear about cold remedies from friends, family, and advertisements, it can be difficult to know what to do.
There's good news and bad news about the treatment for colds: The the good news is that children usually don't need any treatment for colds. Since colds are caused by viruses, children's immune systems can fight them off and they get better on their own. In fact, the annoying symptoms of the cold—stuffy nose, runny nose, cough, and low-grade fever—are actually the body's defenses to fight off the virus. The bad news is that we currently have no effective anti-viral medications to treat colds and help children recover more quickly. There's an old saying: a cold gets better on its own in a week or two; with medication, it gets better in 7-14 days.
But luckily, there are some things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable during this time:
- Give your child tender loving care and allow for plenty of rest. If your child's energy level is high enough to participate in activities, it's okay to let him go to child care or school. But if his energy level is down, it's good to cuddle together in bed, stroke his forehead, read books, sing songs, and play quiet games for a day or two.
- Keep up with good nutrition and plenty of fluids. It's fine to continue with your child's regular diet if she has an appetite for it. But if her appetite is down, encourage her to eat light snacks and drink a lot. Frequent breastfeeding or formula is good for infants. Older children can also drink juice, suck on juice popsicles, or sip warm chicken soup and non-caffeinated tea with honey.
- Run a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer in your child's room. The water vapor can help moisten and loosen your child's nasal mucus. Keep the vaporizer near the crib or bed to get the full effect from the vapor. Be sure to empty, clean and dry the vaporizer each day to prevent the growth of bacteria or mold. Don't use a hot water vaporizer because it can cause burns.
- Stock up on tissues. When your child has a runny nose, you'll need to wipe it frequently. Be sure to use soft tissues and wipe gently. Teach your child how to blow her nose gently, too. If the skin under her nose starts getting irritated and raw, dab on petroleum jelly or A&D ointment to help protect the skin.
- If your child's nasal secretions are too thick, consider using 'normal saline solution' (salt water) nose drops. These are available at the pharmacy without a prescription. Tilt your child's head back gently and squeeze a couple of drops of saline into each nostril to loosen the mucus. Afterwards, clean the dropper with rubbing alcohol. Don't use other medicated nose drops since these can be harmful for children.
- For infants, you can use a soft rubber infant suction bulb to suck out nasal mucus. Squeeze the bulb first, gently stick the rubber tip into one nostril, then release the bulb, sucking the mucus into the bulb. Squeeze out the bulb with the mucus into the sink, rinse out the bulb, then repeat for the other nostril. Afterwards, rinse out the syringe with warm soapy water and squeeze out the excess water so it dries properly. If your baby's nose is too congested to feed comfortably, you can use the saline nose drops and suction bulb before feedings. Since the suction bulb can irritate your baby's nose, try to limit how often you do this.
- Be cautious about giving your child medications. Most of the medicines labeled for 'coughs and colds' do not relieve children's symptoms or help them recover quicker, and they can have harmful side-effects. Consult your pediatrician before giving your child any medications:
- Fever and pain reducers: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful if your child has a fever, sore throat, headache, or muscle aches. Be sure to check with your doctor about the appropriate medication and dose for your child's age. Do not give your child aspirin because this can cause a serious illness called Reye Syndrome.
- Anthistamines: These are only helpful if a stuffy/runny nose is caused by allergies, not a cold virus. They can also make children drowsy.
- Decongestants: These have generally not been found to be helpful for children's colds. Side- effects include difficulty sleeping, nervousness, and irritability.
- Cough suppressants: These, too, have generally not been found to be very helpful for colds. Side-effects include drowsiness.
- 'Alternative' medicines: Many people use a small amount of menthol or eucalyptus oil on a child's chest, which causes a cool sensation in the nose. Beware that other treatments used in adults adults—such as zinc, echinacea, goldenseal, garlic extract, and large doses of vitamin C —have not been studied enough in children to know whether they are safe or effective.
- Antibiotics: Only give your child antibiotics if prescribed by the doctor for this illness. Antibiotics kill only bacteria and do not kill the viruses that cause colds. Giving your child antibiotics when he doesn't need them increases the chances he'll be infected later with resistant bacteria that antibiotics cannot kill. Antibiotics can also cause harmful side-effects such as upset stomach, diarrhea, and rash.
Most children recover from colds within a week or two without any problems. But sometimes a cold can progress to other illnesses such as an ear infection, sinus infection, tonsillitis, croup, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, or asthma attack. Be sure to call your doctor for any of the following signs of concern:
Nasal mucus turns thick and green;
Persistent cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, flaring nostrils, skin pulling in around her ribs when she breathes, or lips turning blue;
Complaint of severe ear pain, or pulling at ear;
Complaint of severe sore throat or difficulty swallowing;
Excessive fussiness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping;
Fever over 101 degrees rectally for infants, or over 102 for older children.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.