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Does Your Child Have a Cold, or Is it Allergies?

It may not be easy to tell what's making your child sneeze and cough.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

For a week, you've wiped your preschooler's runny nose all day long, then listened to her cough in her sleep all night. She's been looking and feeling miserable, and you want to help her get better, but you aren't sure exactly how to categorize her symptoms. Is it a cold, or does she have allergies?

You aren't alone; many parents are confused about the proper way to treat a coughing, sneezing child, because colds and allergies often have overlapping symptoms.

“I think most parents want a checklist, but it's not that easy,” says pediatric allergist Derek K. Johnson, MD, director of the Fairfax Allergy and Sinus Clinic in Fairfax, Va. “However, there are certain things that doctors can teach parents about the differences.”

When in doubt, check with your pediatrician, who will know for sure what's causing your child's symptoms, especially when they persist or worsen over time. If you want to try to solve the mystery on your own, though, time is a good indicator.

“A rule of thumb is that colds last 7 to 10 days and then resolve,” Johnson says. “If you're exposed to allergens, allergic reactions usually persist longer than that.”

Here, experts categorize common symptoms that can indicate colds, environmental allergies, or other problems that are often mistaken for the two.

Colds

Common colds are viral infections that affect children much the same way they do adults. Kids may feel achy and have a low-grade fever (100°F or less), then develop a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and a cough.

You usually can't diagnose your child's condition by analyzing her cough, says Asriani M. Chiu, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine for allergy and immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “A cough can be productive [indicating phlegm that needs to be coughed up] with both colds and allergies, since it's typically from nasal and sinus drainage that comes down the back of the throat.”

Nasal secretions, however, can often clue you in to your child's diagnosis.

“A cold has thick, yellowy or green nasal discharge,” says Mike Tringale, spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “Watery, clear discharge is most often an allergy. When Mom's wiping noses, she can tell immediately what kind of discharge it is, which indicates whether it's some kind of infection or not.”

Because colds are caused by viruses, they can't be cured with medication. Over-the-counter cold remedies may help ease your child's symptoms and discomfort, but if you're uncomfortable giving drugs to your young child, there are medication-free ways to soothe her.

“Ensure hydration by having your child drink lots of fluids,” Chiu says. “And parents can use saline nasal sprays and suction.”

A recent study of 401 children, published in the Archives of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, found that using a saline nasal rinse several times per day helped improve nasal symptoms in the common cold in children and possibly reduced the risk of a relapse.  

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