Children and Colds

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on April 11, 2023
4 min read

Is your child sneezing, coughing, and complaining about a sore throat? There's not a parent on the planet who hasn't been there. Find out how to keep those cold symptoms in check and prevent your kid from getting sick the next time.

More than 200 different viruses can cause this infection, but the rhinovirus is the most common culprit. Antibiotics, which fight bacteria, won't treat your child's cold because a cold is a viral illness. Viral illness cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Except in newborns or in immuno-compromised children, colds in healthy children aren't dangerous. They usually go away in 4 to 10 days without treatment.

When your child gets a cold, it starts when they have a general feeling of not being well, often followed by a sore throat, runny nose or cough.

At the beginning, the sore throat is due to a buildup of mucus. Later, your child may get a postnasal drip -- when the mucus runs down the back of their nose to the throat.

As your child's cold gets worse, they may wake up with symptoms like these:

  • Watery mucus in the nose
  • Watery or crusty eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Feeling of tiredness
  • Fever (sometimes)
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Decreased or no appetite

A cold virus can affect your child's sinuses, throat, bronchial tubes, and ears. They may also have diarrhea and vomiting.

At first your child may be irritable and complain of a headache and feeling stuffed up. After a while, the mucus coming out of their nose may turn darker and thicker.

Babies and toddlers often have 8 to 10 colds a year before they turn 2 years old. Kids who are preschool age have around nine colds a year, while kindergartners can have 12 a year. Adolescents and adults get about two to four a year.

Cold season runs from September until March or April, so children usually get sick most often during these months.

Your child can get sick when someone who's got a cold touches an object that's later touched by your child. Door handles, stair railings, books, pens, video game remotes, and a computer keyboard are some common "carriers" of cold viruses. They can live on one of those objects for several hours.

Washing hands is the best defense. Teach your child to do it after every bathroom trip, before every meal, and after playing at school or at home.

It takes 20 seconds of hand washing with warm, soapy water to get rid of germs. Tell your child to sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice to know that they're washed long enough. Using hand sanitizer is also a good option to prevent the spread of germs. 

If your child has a cold, make sure you protect others from catching it. If they have symptoms, keep them home from school and avoid contact with other children.

Encourage your child to cover his mouth when sneezing and to use a tissue when they blow their nose. If they don't have a tissue, teach them to cough in their sleeve. Remind your child to wash their hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing their nose.

The FDA and drugmakers say you shouldn't give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children under 4. These include things like:

These drugs are the active ingredients in many brands of kids' cold and cough medicines.

Generally speaking, children should not be using cough medicines. Coughing is the body’s natural way of helping the body get rid of the cold virus. It's OK to let your child cough, unless they are in distress. 


Talk to the pediatrician if your child doesn't get better after a few days. Also call if they have a high fever, vomiting, chills and shakes, a hacking cough, any respiratory distress, or extreme fatigue. These may be signs of something more severe, like the flu or a bacterial infection.

If your child has asthma, diabetes, or other long-term health conditions, call your pediatrician to talk about medicine or other treatments.

Also watch for signs of complications of the flu, such as pneumonia. Symptoms include a low-grade fever (less than 102 F), coughing up mucus, achiness, labored or fast breathing, and tiredness. Contact the pediatrician immediately if any of these symptoms appear.