It’s that time of year when the cold temperatures are here to stay and winter will be in New England for the next few months. It’s also the time of year for a lot of sniffles, coughs and colds. Children are more susceptible to multiple colds in one season and tend to have symptoms for longer duration than adults do. Colds, or upper respiratory infections (URI for short) as doctors call them, are caused by a multitude of viruses. One of the most common one is called rhinovirus, which has more than 100 strains! Typical symptoms can include: nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, fever, sore throat, cough, malaise/fatigue, decreased appetite, and headache. A few viruses, such as influenza and adenovirus (which are not the so called “common cold”), can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms in children, such as vomiting, diarrhea and nausea. Fever typically occurs in the first few days of illness. Children may also experience fussiness and sleep disruption or difficulty due to their illness.

Some interesting facts:

  • Common colds account for over 20 million missed school days per year!
  • Younger children (under age 6) have, on average, 6 to 8 colds per year (which really means September through April for typical “cold season”) and typical symptom duration is 14 days.
  • Older children (and adults) have 2 to 4 illnesses per year and symptoms tend to be for about 7 days.
  • Coughing tends to last a week or so longer than other symptoms, but should be showing signs of improvement. (That means a cough can last at least 3-4 weeks in younger kids!)
  • The color of nasal secretions does not necessarily indicate that the type of infection; it actually more likely correlates to the activity of the white blood cells that are fighting the cold virus infection.

Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for these types of viral illnesses and the major treatment is to treat the symptoms if they are bothersome. In babies and younger children, it is important to help clear the nasal secretions with nasal saline and nasal suction if needed, acetaminophen (if older than 2-3 months) or ibuprofen (if older than 6 months) if your child is fussy and uncomfortable and making sure they are taking in an adequate amount of fluids. There are a number of over the counter medications available for older children, but most really have marginal effect on symptoms and  none of them shorten the length of the illness (plus, many can have unwanted side effects as well). Antibiotics have no role in treating colds as they are caused by viruses and not bacteria (colds can sometimes lead to complications such as ear infections or pneumonia secondarily, and these complications can require antibiotic treatment).

The main point is the best treatment is time. However, it is always important to know when to call and have your child evaluated at the office. Reasons to call include:

  • Fever: if it last for more than 2-3 days, if your child is under 6 months, or if the fever went away and then occurred again
  • Any signs of difficulty breathing or labored breathing
  • If there is no obvious improvement in symptoms
  • If you have any concern about how your child is doing.