Why do children get so many colds?

What is a cold?

A cold is the way you feel when a virus has infected your upper respiratory system, which includes your mouth, nose, and throat. This can cause runny nose, nasal congestion, a ticklish or painful throat, cough, a feeling of pressure in the ears, fever, headache, and a general feeling of ill health. These symptoms are caused by the battle between the virus and your body's immune system.

Is that like bronchitis?

The word "bronchitis" basically means "cough illness." Inflammation of the large airways of the lungs results in coughing. Colds frequently include bronchitis, both from the virus itself attacking the lungs, and from mucus which enters the lungs from the nose and must be coughed back up. In adults, particularly in smokers, it's more likely that bronchitis is due to a bacterial infection which will require antibiotics, but that is not the case in children. The presence of cough, in children who are usually healthy, does not mean that the cold will "turn into" pneumonia.

How long does a cold last?

The worst of a cold may be over in a few days, or it may last 2-3 weeks.

Why do children get so many colds?

Many different kinds of virus can cause a cold. The human body must learn to fight each one of these viruses all over again. Adults have already been exposed to most of these viruses, and the second time you are infected with the same virus; your immune system may defeat it more quickly. But a child's immune system is still learning how to fight each of these viruses for the first time. This means that children are more likely to develop the symptoms which we call a "cold," and they may have those symptoms for a longer period of time than an adult exposed to that same virus. Also, children spend time around other children who have colds, and this makes it more likely that the cold will be passed on to them.

How many colds do children get in a year?

More than their parents and older brothers and sisters. The following graph shows that the average number of colds per year in infants is more than 6, with most adults getting only 2 or 3. (Source: Lancet, Jan 4, 2003, p. 51)

What can I do to make it go away faster?

Nothing, unfortunately. There are no antibiotics which will make a cold less severe or shorter. If fever is causing discomfort, that can be treated. In general, resting and drinking fluids is all that can help with the symptoms.

 What can I do to make my child more comfortable until it goes away?

Removal of mucus is the single most helpful thing. Mucus plugs the nose, causing facial pain and making breathing uncomfortable. Mucus falls into the lungs, causing coughing. Mucus falls into the stomach, causing nausea. Older children who can blow their nose should be encouraged to do so, rather than sniffing the mucus back inside. Hot steam such as a shower can make blowing of the nose more successful. For younger children, a soft rubber nasal suction bulb can be used to clean mucus from the nose. Nasal saline solution may be helpful to remove thicker mucus.

What about the coughing?

Cough is a natural body defense to clear undesirable material from the lungs, so the best thing is to prevent mucus from entering the lungs at all, as described directly above. Apart from that, propping the head of the child's bed helps the mucus to drain into the stomach instead of building up in the throat. Over-the-counter cough remedies do not contain strong cough suppressants and are not very effective. For children with terribly bad coughing, we may (occasionally) recommend a prescription-strength cough remedy, but we will not do so without examining the child to make sure that the illness is nothing more serious than a cold. Do not expect to fully eliminate coughing, which is a necessary part of the body's defense against illness.

How can I tell if it's something worse than a cold?

Warning signs of serious infection of the lungs include persistent fever (more than 4 days) and especially difficulty breathing. This means that the child is breathing quickly and cannot catch his breath, not simply that the sound of the breathing is noisy. Noisy breathing due to nasal congestion is very common in harmless colds. Wheezing is a high pitched sound during breathing which may indicate a problem deeper in the lungs than simple viral bronchitis. If you notice wheezing, persistent fever, or rapid breathing in your child, inform us immediately.

Can my child go to daycare or school with a cold?

Colds are so common in children that it's not considered good to keep them home, unless they have fever. Children with fever should not return to school or daycare until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours.