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Coughs and colds in children
What are coughs and colds?
Coughs and colds are infections of the respiratory tract – that is, they can affect the
ear, nose, throat and chest. They are very common and rarely cause serious harm.
Children have more colds than adults do because adults have built up immunity to
many cough and cold viruses from previous illnesses. Children can get 5–10 of
these colds per year (compared with 2–4 per year in adults). Common colds usually
get better after 5–7 days. A cough is often the last thing to improve and can last
1–2 weeks longer than the other symptoms.
How are coughs and colds spread?
Common colds are usually caught from infected people through contact with hands
or objects (e.g. tissues and toys) or by inhaling droplets from sneezes or coughs.
To help prevent the spread of colds, encourage children (and adults) to:
keep hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth
cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing
wash hands thoroughly with soap, particularly before eating food and after
avoid sharing cups, glasses and cutlery.
Children with colds can attend childcare, preschool and school as long as they feel well enough to participate.
How to relieve cough and cold symptoms
Will antibiotics help?
Most coughs and colds are caused by viruses and get better on their own. Antibiotics work only on bacterial infections so antibiotics won't stop a cold from getting worse and will not stop infection spreading to other people.
Ear and throat infections in children are more likely to be caused by bacteria than in adults. While antibiotics may help a child get better sooner, antibiotics are only needed in some cases, as these infections often get better by themselves. Your doctor will discuss with you when antibiotics are necessary.
Children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are more likely to suffer bacterial complications of respiratory tract infections, particularly pneumonia and ear damage which can lead to deafness. In these children antibiotic use may be appropriate.
Importantly, using antibiotics when they are not needed may make them less effective when you do need them. Antibiotics may also cause unwanted side effects like stomach upsets, diarrhoea and thrush.
How to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds:
Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to relieve aches and pains (such as sore
throat) and reduce the discomfort of fever. Do not use ibuprofen in children under 6 months of age. Carefully follow instructions and do not exceed the dose or frequency shown on the label or package.
Aspirin must not be given to children unless prescribed by a doctor as it can
Decongestants can help dry a runny nose or relieve blocked sinuses. They
can be difficult to use in children and provide only brief relief. Do not use them more often or for longer than it states on the label or package as this may make congestion worse. Saline nasal sprays may help clear mucus.
Encourage your child to drink as much as they normally would. Don’t worry if
your child is not too interested in eating as long as they are drinking sufficient fluids.
Blow the nose often. Encourage the use of tissues and discard after use and
Apply an ointment such as petroleum jelly to dry and chapped skin around the
Steam inhalations should be not be used in children as the hot steam can
burn the lining of their nose and accidents may occur.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you are concerned about your child’s health.
Ensure that your child’s immunisations are up to date.
Babies under 6 months with a high temperature should be seen by a doctor. Children of any age should be seen by a doctor if the symptoms come on suddenly, are severe, last longer than usual or if they have any of the following:
Other reasons a child may need to be seen by a doctor include:
persistent cough (present for more than 1 week)
other health problems which may be worsened by a cold (e.g. children with
Dr Yvonne Belessis, Fellow in Respiratory Medicine, Sydney Children’s Hospital
Dr Peter Roush, General Practitioner, Brisbane
CQUM Management Sub-Committee
National Prescribing Service Limited|ACN 082 034 393|ABN 61 082 034 39
Level 7/418A Elizabeth Street Surry Hills NSW PO Box 1147 Strawberry Hills NSW 201
Phone: 02 8217 8700|Fax: 02 9211 7578 | net: www.nps.org.au
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