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Kid Care: Colds

Colds are a common childhood illness. The following suggestions should help your child get back up to speed soon. If your child hasn’t had a fever for the past 24 hours and feels OK, he or she can return to regular activities at school and at play. You can help prevent future colds by following the tips at the end of this sheet.

Young boy blowing nose in tissue.

There is no cure for the common cold. An older child usually doesn't need to see a doctor unless the cold becomes serious. If your child is 3 months or younger, call your healthcare provider at the first sign of illness. A young baby's cold can become more serious very quickly. It can develop into a serious problem such as pneumonia.

Ease congestion

  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to help loosen mucus. Don’t use a hot-steam vaporizer with a young child who could get burned. Make sure to clean the vaporizer often to help prevent mold growth.

  • Try over-the-counter saline nasal sprays. They’re safe for children. These are not the same as nasal decongestant sprays, which may make symptoms worse. Talk with the pharmacist if you have questions about what to use.

  • Use a bulb syringe to clear the nose of a child too young to blow his or her nose. Wash the bulb syringe often in hot, soapy water. Be sure to rinse out all of the soap and drain all of the water before using it again.

Soothe a sore throat

  • Offer plenty of liquids to keep the throat moist and reduce pain. Good choices include ice chips, water, or frozen fruit bars.

  • Give children age 4 or older throat drops or lozenges to keep the throat moist and soothe pain.

  • Give ibuprofen or acetaminophen as advised by your child's healthcare provider to relieve pain. Never give aspirin to a child under age 18 who has a cold or flu. It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.

Before you give your child medicine

Cold and cough medicines should not be used for children under the age of 6, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. These medicines don't work on young children and may cause harmful side effects. If your child is age 6 or older, use care when giving cold and cough medicines. Always follow your doctor’s advice.

Quiet a cough

  • Serve warm fluids such as clear soups to help loosen mucus.

  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to ease croup. Croup causes dry, barking coughs.

  • Use cough medicine for children age 6 or older only if advised by your child’s healthcare provider.

Preventing colds

To help children stay healthy:

  • Teach children to wash their hands often. This includes before eating and after using the bathroom, playing with animals, or coughing or sneezing. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol. This is for times when soap and water aren’t available.

  • Remind children not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • Throw tissues away right after they are used. Then wash your hands.

  • Don't let children share drinking cups, utensils, or pacifiers

Tips for correct handwashing

Use clean, running water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under the nails, between the fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least 10 to 15 seconds. This is about as long as it takes to say the alphabet or sing “Happy Birthday.” Don’t just wash. Scrub well.

  • Rinse well. Let the water run down the fingers, not up the wrists.

  • In a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

When to call the doctor

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if your child has any of these fever symptoms:

  • Fever (see Children and fever, below)

  • Your child looks very ill or is unusually fussy or drowsy

  • Severe ear pain or sore throat

  • Unexplained rash

  • Repeated vomiting and diarrhea

  • A stiff neck or severe headache

  • Persistent brown, green, or bloody mucus

  • Signs of dehydration, which include severe thirst, dark yellow urine, infrequent urination, dull eyes, dry skin, and dry or cracked lips.

  • Your child's symptoms seem to be getting worse

  • Your child doesn’t look or act right to you

Call 911

Call 911 if your child has:

  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Signs of severe dehydration, which include sunken eyes, no tears or urine, and lethargic

  • Blue, purple or gray color skin, lips, or fingernails

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For babies and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Baby under 3 months old:

  • Ask your child's healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2019
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