toddler care

How many colds are normal for children?

Why do babies and toddlers get so many colds? And is there anything I can do to prevent it?

How can I help my baby or toddler avoid colds?

Are there ways I can help my baby or toddler stop getting so many colds?

Baby with a cold 474

It’s quite normal for your little one to have up to eight or more colds a year. This is because there are hundreds of different cold viruses and young children have no immunity to them as they've never had them before. Gradually they build up immunity and get fewer colds.

Opinion is divided over whether vitamins and supplements help to prevent, combat or relieve the symptoms of colds. Some swear by vitamin C and yet high dose vitamin C can be dangerous when taken in supplement form plus, there is no concrete evidence that it is effective in every case. Others are devotees of echinacea, but parents should not give this popular herbal remedy to children under 12 years because of the risk of severe allergic reactions and there is little or no evidence to support echinacea or colds. 

What causes coughs and colds and what are the symptoms? 

Most coughs and colds are caused by a variety of different viruses which can infect the nose and throat. Airborne viruses are passed on by coughing and sneezing. A typical preschool and primary school child has 3-8 coughs or colds per year. Sometimes several coughs or colds occur one after the other. A child who lives with smokers has an increased risk of developing coughs and colds.

• The common symptoms are a cough and a runny nose. The cough is often worse at night. 

• In addition, a child may have a raised temperature, a sore throat, headache, tiredness, and be off their food. Sometimes children may be sick after a bout of coughing.

• A build-up of mucus behind the eardrums may also cause dulled hearing or mild earache and could result in an ear infection. 

What are the treatments for coughs and colds?

Coughs and colds often do not need any treatment and get better in five to seven days, often clearing away on their own. However, you can ease the symptoms by: 

• Regular fluids for your child so that they are not dehydrated. 

• Salt water (saline) nasal drops can help to loosen dried secretions and relieve a stuffy nose. 

• Vapour rubs are another popular treatment. They can be applied to the chest and back (avoid application to the nostril area in small children, for safety reasons). 

• Inhaling steam can help to relieve congestion and coughing. The safest way to do this with children is to sit in the bathroom with a hot shower/hot taps running.

• To treat a child with a fever, pain or discomfort, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help. Don’t give them at the same time, but if your little one’s symptoms come back or don’t improve before their next dose of paracetamol is due, you can alternate and give a dose of ibuprofen.

• Antibiotic medicines are of no use as they are used to treat infections caused by bacteria, not viruses.

• Parents should encourage the whole family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth too as germs are often spread when a person touches a contaminated surface or object.

What about cold and cough remedies?

Cough or cold remedies contain various ingredients or combinations of ingredients such as paracetamol, decongestants, antihistamines and cough remedies and have been used for many years to treat young children. However, in March 2009 an important statement was issued by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) which said that parents and carers should no longer use over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines in children aged under the age of 6. For 6- to 12-year-olds these medicines continue to be available (as there is less risk of side-effects in older children). Paracetamol and ibuprofen OTC products for pain and fever are safe to use.

Symptoms that cause concern 

Sometimes a more serious infection develops from an initial viral infection. For example, an ear infection, chest infection (pneumonia), etc. Symptoms to look out for that may mean more than just a cold include:

• Breathing problems - wheeziness, fast breathing, noisy breathing or difficulty with breathing.

• Being unable to swallow (this may show up as excessive drooling).

• Drowsiness.

• Unusual irritability or persistent crying, in a baby, or if the baby is not taking feeds.

• Persistent high temperatures, particularly if a baby aged less than three months has a raised temperature (fever) higher than 38°C.

• A rash.

• Chest pains.

• Very bad (severe) headache, sore throat, earache, sinusitis, blocked and painful ears or swollen glands.

• A cough that persists for longer than three to four weeks.

• Symptoms getting worse rather than better after about five days of a cold.

• Symptoms (other than a mild cough) lasting more than about ten days. This is particularly important if your child has mucus or phlegm (sputum) which is green, yellow or brown, as it may indicate infection.

Children’s flu vaccine

The nasal spray flu vaccine is now available for children aged two, three and four years old plus children in school years - Year One and Year two as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. Not only is it needle-free it’s quick, painless and more effective than the injected flu vaccine.

How many colds are normal for children?