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Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

What is the common cold?

The common cold (upper respiratory infection) is one of the most common illnesses. Each year it leads to more healthcare provider visits and missed days from school and work than any other illness. Millions of people in the U.S. will get a cold during a 1-year period. Colds happen when a virus inflames the membranes in the lining of the nose and throat. Colds can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. But most colds are caused by rhinoviruses.

Facts about the common cold

Here are a few facts:

  • Most children will have at least 6 to 8 colds a year. Children who attend daycare will have more.

  • Colds may occur less often after age 6.

  • Adults get colds about 2 to 4 times a year.

  • Children are more likely to have colds during fall and winter

Why do children get colds?

Children get more colds than adults do. Here are some reasons why:

  • Less resistance. A child’s immune system is not as strong as an adult’s when it comes to fighting cold germs.

  • Winter season. Most respiratory illnesses occur in fall and winter when children are indoors and exposed to more germs. The humidity also drops during this season. This makes the nasal passages drier and at greater risk for infection.

  • School or daycare. Colds spread easily when children are in close contact.

  • Hand-to-mouth contact. Children are likely to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth without washing their hands. This is the most common way germs spread.

What causes the common cold?

Over 200 different types of viruses can cause cold symptoms. The most common viruses that cause colds are called rhinoviruses. After the virus enters your child's body, it causes a reaction as the body's immune system reacts to the virus. This then causes:

  • A runny nose (an increase in mucus production)

  • Swelling of the lining of the nose, making it hard to breathe and causing congestion

  • Sneezing from the irritation in the nose

  • Coughing from the increased mucus dripping down the throat

How did my child catch a cold?

To catch a cold, your child must come in contact with 1 of the viruses that cause a cold, from someone else who is affected. The cold virus can be spread in the following ways:

  • Through the air. If a person with a cold sneezes or coughs, small amounts of the virus can go into the air. Then if your child breathes in that air, the virus will stick to your child's nasal membrane.

  • Direct contact. This means that your child directly touched a person that was infected. A cold is easy for children to spread. That’s because they touch their nose, mouth, and eyes often and then touch other people or objects and can spread the virus. It’s important to know that viruses can be spread through objects, such as toys, that have been touched by someone with a cold.

What are the symptoms of a common cold?

Cold symptoms start from 1 to 3 days after your child has been in contact with the cold virus. Usually symptoms last about 1 week. Bu they may last up to 2 weeks. Each child’s symptoms may vary. Cold symptoms may include:

Infants:

  • Unable to sleep

  • Fussiness

  • Congestion in the nose

  • Sometimes vomiting and diarrhea

  • Fever

Older children:

  • Stuffy, runny nose

  • Scratchy, tickly throat

  • Watery eyes

  • Sneezing

  • Mild hacking cough

  • Congestion

  • Sore throat

  • Achy muscles and bones

  • Headaches

  • Low grade fever

  • Chills

  • Watery discharge from the nose that thickens and turns yellow or green

  • Mild fatigue

The symptoms of the common cold may seem like other conditions or health problems. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a cold different from the flu?

A cold and the flu (influenza) are 2 different illnesses. A cold is fairly harmless. It usually clears up by itself after a period of time. But it can sometimes lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. The flu can also be harmless. But it may progress to a more complicated illness such as pneumonia. Sometimes it can even lead to death. What may seem like a cold may really be the flu. Be aware of these differences:

Cold symptoms

Flu symptoms

Low or no fever

High fever

Sometimes a headache

Commonly a headache

Stuffy, runny nose

Sometimes a stuffy nose

Sneezing

Sometimes sneezing

Mild, hacking cough

Cough, may progress

Slight aches and pains

Often severe aches and pains

Mild fatigue

Fatigue, may persist

Sore throat

Sometimes a sore throat

Normal energy level

Exhaustion

How are colds diagnosed?

Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. But cold symptoms may seem like certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other medical conditions. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are colds treated?

There is no cure for the common cold. Most children recover from colds on their own. Antibiotics don’t work against viral infections, so they are not prescribed. Instead, treatment is focused on helping ease your child’s symptoms until the illness passes. To help your child feel better:

  • Give your child lots of fluids, such as water, electrolyte solutions, apple juice, and warm soup, to prevent fluid loss (dehydration).

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • To relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal sprays. You can buy them without a prescription, and they’re safe for children. These are not the same as nasal decongestant sprays, which may make symptoms worse.

  • Keep your child away from smoke, as this will increase the irritation in the nose and throat.

  • Use children’s strength medicine for symptoms. Discuss all over-the-counter (OTC) products with your child’s healthcare provider before using them. Note: Don’t give OTC cough and cold medicines to a child younger than 6 years old unless the provider tells you to do so.

  • Never give aspirin to a child age 18 or younger who has a cold or flu. It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.

  • Never give ibuprofen to an infant age 6 months or younger.

  • Keep your child home until he or she has been fever-free for 24 hours.

Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare provider.

Can I prevent my child from getting colds?

To help children stay healthy:

  • Keep children away from people with a cold.

  • Teach children to wash their hands often—before eating and after using the bathroom, playing with animals, or coughing or sneezing. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel (containing at least 60% alcohol) for times when soap and water aren’t available.

  • Remind children not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • Make sure toys and play areas are properly cleaned, especially if several children are playing together.

What are the possible complications from having a cold?

Some of the complications that might occur if your child gets a cold include:

  • Ear infections

  • Sinus infections

  • Pneumonia

  • Throat infections

Consult your child's healthcare provider for further evaluation.

When to call the healthcare provider

Contact your child's healthcare provider if your child has:

  • A fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days

  • Symptoms that are not relieved by over-the-counter medicines

Medical Reviewers:

  • Blaivas, Allen J., DO
  • Finke, Amy, RN, BSN