Welcome to this guide on
handling coughs and colds
in children and babies

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It is designed to give parents and carers important information on how to care for coughs and colds, should they happen.

Why children might
always seem to have a cold

A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and a common ailment that we are all familiar with.

Firstly, it can be daunting as a parent and carer to see your child catching colds often. But rest assured, it is completely natural. In fact, it is common for children to have 8 or more colds in a year.1

Young children’s immune systems are developing, which means that they are more susceptible to the hundreds of different cold viruses that exist. Once they catch a cold, they will become immune to that specific strain, and will gradually begin to get fewer colds.

Child with a cold

Signs and symptoms

To identify if your child has caught a cold, you can watch out for these symptoms:

  • a tickly or sore throat
  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • mild fever
  • loss of appetite

Cold symptoms such as this tend to arise 2-3 days after infection and the cold itself usually can last roughly a week, but some can last a little longer.2

An understandable concern for caregivers is knowing whether the child in their care has a cold or whether it is the flu. Normally, the flu (influenza) virus will make children feel worse than a cold would, however it is not always easy to tell the difference between the two.

Question mark

Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following questions in this checklist:

  • Did the illness arise suddenly?
  • Does your child have very low energy?
  • Do they have a high fever?
  • Are your child’s muscles ‘achy’?
  • Do they have chills?

If the answer to these questions are “yes”, then there is a good chance that your child has the flu. If you mainly answered “no”, then it is likely to be a cold.

Child and parent with a doctor

When things are getting
serious enough for the doctor

When it comes to children, it can be difficult to tell when they need to be taken to see a doctor. After all, they can’t always tell you exactly what and how they’re feeling. Most colds and coughs in children get better by themselves without any further complications. However, understanding the signs that your child may have something more serious than a cold will help you in deciding what their treatment should be.

You should contact a doctor if your child has3 :

  • problems with their breathing – if your child is wheezing, breathing noisily or having trouble breathing
  • a temperature above 38°C
  • no improvement or worsening symptoms after 4 days
  • breathing issues
  • choking or vomit from coughing
  • unable to swallow
  • drowsiness
  • a persistent cough (3 or more weeks)
  • eyes stuck shut
  • thick nasal discharge for 2 weeks or more
  • intense headache, earache, sore throat or swollen glands
  • any unusual / unexplained symptoms

Handling treatment
of different symptoms

Treating children’s cold symptoms can be daunting. Due to their bodies still developing, some different forms of treatment at home may be required.

It is important to note that it is not recommended you take antibiotics to help treat cold or flu, as they will not relieve symptoms or help speed up recovery. This is because cold and flu are caused by viruses, whereas antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections.4

Over the counter medicines

It is important whenever using over the counter medicines to always read the label carefully before using it as dosages may vary between different medicines, and some medicines may not be suitable for children.5

Sleep aids

Children will tend to sleep quite a lot when they have a cold, which will help them get better. But there are some other things which you can do to ease discomfort when they are sleeping.

  • make sure they drink plenty of fluids
  • raise their head a little with rolled towel or extra pillow
  • bath/steam before bed
  • keep to normal bedtime routine
  • keep their bedroom a comfortable temperature, and use lighter bedding to make sure they don’t overheat

Congestion

Babies may need help clearing mucus from their nose in order to breast feed. A suction bulb should help to clear their nose of mucus, plus saline nasal drops or spray help if it is thick.6

Coughing

Your child coughing can be unsettling, but it is a completely natural way of clearing their throat of phlegm. As long as they are eating and breathing normally without any wheezing then there isn’t anything to worry about.7

Itchy or watery eyes

This is perfectly normal for a cold; however it is worth keeping an eye on as any pus coming from the eye may be a sign of an eye infection, and you should contact your GP.8

Fever, sore throat & body aches

For these symptoms, you can give children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen. However, check first with your GP or a healthcare professional as children with asthma may not be able to take these medicines.

Prevention as the
most beneficial measure

Of course, the most proactive way to tackling cold and flu, is taking steps to prevent them. Ensuring you take the best measures in looking after your health helps the chances of you and those around avoiding catching a cold or the flu.

Getting a flu vaccine is a very effective way to prevent the flu virus, which will give the child a weakened dose of the virus which is unlikely to give them the flu.

The flu vaccine is free on the NHS for9 10:

  • children over the age of 6 months with a long-term health condition
  • children aged between 2 and 3 years on 31 August 2019
  • children in primary school
  • children aged between 6 months and 2 years who are eligible for the flu vaccine will receive an injected flu vaccine
  • children eligible for the flu vaccine aged between 2 and 17 will usually have the flu vaccine nasal spray
Child having an injection

Common colds can spread very easily, usually by coughs and sneezes; and the germs can live on hands and surfaces for up to 24 hours. Also, you are infectious until all of your symptoms have gone, which usually takes up to 2 weeks.11

However, there are steps that you can take with your little one to help prevent catching one, including:

  • cleaning toys and pacifiers often to reduce the chance of germs
  • teaching kids about “germs”
  • washing hands thoroughly with warm water and soap
  • coughing into tissues, or inner elbow, to minimise the spread of germs
  • bin tissues straight away
  • don’t touch your eyes and nose in case you’ve been in contact with germs
  • be wary about sharing cups, cutlery, towels etc. as they may transfer germs
  • general health, diet, good sleep, and setting an example for your child

Tips for caregivers and family

Children playing together at day care

Please remember that colds are common by nature and it is not always possible to prevent your child from catching a cold. In situations like day care, it is very likely that children who have colds will interact with each other.

A balanced and nutritional diet will help in strengthening children’s immune systems as they form, helping them to fight off future coughs, colds and flu.