Most adults catch a cold from time to time, but kids can get eight colds per year
or more. They're the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.
What Causes a Cold?
Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses carried in invisible droplets in the air
or on things we touch. These viruses can get into the protective lining of the nose
and throat, setting off an immune
system reaction that can cause a sore throat, headache, and trouble breathing
through the nose.
Dry air — indoors or outside — can lower resistance to infection by
the viruses that cause colds. So can being a smoker or being around someone who smokes.
Smokers are more likely to catch a cold than people who don't smoke, and their symptoms
probably will be worse and last longer, and can even lead to bronchitis or pneumonia.
But despite some old wives' tales, not wearing a jacket
or sweater when it's chilly, sitting or sleeping in a draft, and going outside while
your hair's wet do not cause colds.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Cold?
The first symptoms of a cold are often a tickle in the throat, a runny or stuffy
nose, and sneezing. Kids with colds also might feel very tired and have a sore throat,
cough, headache, mild fever, muscle aches, and loss of appetite.
Mucus from the nose may become thick yellow or green.
Are Colds Contagious?
Colds are the most common infectious disease in the United States. They're very
contagious, especially in the first 2 to 4 days after symptoms begin. They can even
spread for a couple of weeks after someone starts feeling sick.
Colds spread through person-to-person contact or by breathing in virus particles,
which can travel up to 12 feet through the air when someone with a cold coughs or
sneezes. Touching the mouth or nose after touching a contaminated surface can also
spread a cold.
How Long Do Colds Last?
Cold symptoms usually appear 2 or 3 days after exposure to a source of infection.
Most colds clear up within 1 week, but some last a bit longer.
How Are Colds Diagnosed?
Your doctor won't be able to identify the specific virus causing cold symptoms,
but can examine your child's throat and ears and take a throat
culture to make sure the symptoms aren't from another condition that may need
treatment. If symptoms get worse instead of better after 3 days or so, the problem
could be strep throat, sinusitis, pneumonia, or bronchitis,
especially if your son or daughter smokes.
If symptoms last for more than a week, appear at the same time every year, or happen
when your child is around pollen, dust, or animals, an allergy
could be to blame. Kids who have trouble breathing or wheeze when they catch a cold
could have asthma.
How Are Colds Treated?
Colds will clear up on their own without specific medical treatment. Medicine can't
cure a cold, but can ease symptoms like muscle aches, headache, and fever. You can
give your child acetaminophen
or ibuprofen based on the package
recommendations for age or weight.
Never give aspirin to children or teens, as such use has been
linked to Reye syndrome, a rare
but serious condition that can be fatal.
Many experts now believe that there's usually no reason to give over-the-counter
(OTC) decongestants and antihistamines to any child younger than 6. There's little
proof that these medicines work, and decongestants can cause hallucinations, irritability,
and irregular heartbeats, particularly in infants.
Can Colds Be Prevented?
Because so many viruses cause colds, there isn't a vaccine to protect against them.
To help avoid catching one, kids should:
sneeze or cough into a tissue or their elbow, not into their hands
not share towels, drinking glasses, or eating utensils with someone who has a
not pick up other people's used tissues
Experts aren't sure whether taking extra zinc or vitamin C can limit how long cold
symptoms last or how severe they become, but large doses taken every day can
cause negative side effects. Studies on herbal remedies, like echinacea, are either
negative or aren't conclusive. Few good scientific studies of these treatments have
been done in kids.
Talk to your doctor before you give your child any herbal remedy or more than the
recommended daily allowance (RDA) of any vitamin or supplement.
How Can I Help My Child?
To help ease cold discomfort, you can:
put saline (saltwater) drops in the nostrils to relieve nasal congestion
run a cool-mist humidifier to increase air moisture
dab petroleum jelly on the skin under the nose to soothe rawness
give hard candy or cough drops to relieve sore throat (only for kids older than
run a warm bath or use a heating pad to soothe aches and pains
run a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where your child can sit to
help clear stuffiness
What about chicken soup? There's no real proof that eating it can cure a cold,
but sick people have been swearing by it for more than 800 years. Chicken soup contains
a mucus-thinning amino acid called cysteine, and some research shows that chicken
soup helps control congestion-causing white cells, called neutrophils.
The best plan, though, is not to worry about whether to "feed a cold" or "starve
a fever." Just make sure your child eats when hungry and drinks plenty of fluids like
water or juice to help replace the fluids lost during a fever or from mucus production.
When to Call the Doctor
Always call the doctor if you think your child might have more than a cold, your
child gets worse instead of better, or if your child has any of these symptoms:
coughing up a lot of mucus
shortness of breath
inability to keep food or liquids down or poor fluid intake
increasing headache or facial or throat pain
severely painful sore throat that interferes with swallowing
fever of 103°F (39.3°C) or higher, or a fever of 101°F (38.0°C)
or higher that lasts for more than a day
chest or stomach pain
swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
Like most viral infections, colds just have to run their course. Getting plenty
of rest and drinking lots of fluids — juice and water — can help your
child feel better while on the mend.
Keeping up regular activities like going to school probably won't make a cold any
worse. But it will increase the likelihood that the cold will spread to classmates
or friends. So you might want to put some daily routines aside until your child is