Childhood Colds

Colds are caused by viruses. A cold can last one to three weeks. Most healthy children will have several colds a year.

Your child can get a cold from someone who has a cold. This happens when the virus is spread either by the person sneezing or coughing near your child, or by your child touching something the sick person has touched, such as doorknobs, refrigerator handles, and counter surfaces.

Colds happen more often during the winter than during other seasons. Being inside for longer times makes it easier for viruses to spread from one person to another at school, daycare, or home.


Symptoms of a cold include runny and stuffy nose; sore throat; cough; redness of the nose, throat, and eyes; aches and pains; headache; and fever. Most symptoms last for 2 to 4 days, but the runny and stuffy nose can last up to 3 weeks. The cough can last for up to 2 months.

If your child has trouble breathing and swallowing, call your child's doctor right away.


There is no medicine to kill a cold virus. Decongestants, usually found in cold medicines, are not recommended for use in children younger than 6 years old. Antibiotics kill bacteria but have no effect on viruses. The goal of caring for children with colds is to make them as comfortable as possible until the symptoms go away.

To relieve your child's congested nose or chest:

To relieve your child's cough:


Cold medicine should not be used for children younger than 4 years old because it can do harm. Cold medicines also have not been shown to work in children younger than 6 years old.

Follow these guidelines when using medicines:

If you give your child medicine, choose products with only one ingredient, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin). These can help lower the fever and ease aches and pains. Your child's doctor can help you decide which medicine to use. Check that these medicines do not contain extra ingredients.

Do not give aspirin to a child or youth younger than age 20. It has been linked to a rare but serious disease called Reye syndrome.

Don't use more than one medicine unless directed to do so by a doctor.


Since cold viruses are often picked up by touching things, wash hands often. Keep young babies (younger than 3 months old) away from people with colds. Stay away from cigarette and wood smoke, which cause children to get colds more often. Don't share cups, food, and tissues.

When To Call Your Child's Doctor

Call your child's doctor if your child isn't getting better with home treatment or if you notice any of the following symptoms:

After medical center hours, contact the Consulting Nurse Service.

Clinical review by Emily Chao, DO
Group Health
Reviewed 02/15/2012