KidsMD Health Topics


  • Overview

    A cold, also called an upper respiratory infection (URI), is a collection of symptoms and one of the most common illnesses, leading to more doctor visits and absences from school and work than any other illness each year.

    • Most children will develop at least six to ten colds a year. This number increases for children who attend daycare.
    • Colds do not happen as much after the age of 6.
    •  Adolescents and adults get colds about two to four times a year.
    • It is estimated that during a one-year period, people in the United States will suffer one billion colds.

    How Children's approaches colds

    Children's experts have testified in front of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) on the dangers of giving cough and cold medicines to children under age 6. Our physicians and researchers are also vocal about the danger of antibiotic resistance that can develop when antibiotics are overprescribed or prescribed incorrectly—for example, for the common cold.

    Boston Children's Hospital
    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston MA 02115

     fax: 617-730-0505

  • In-Depth

    What causes the common cold?

    A cold is caused by a virus. There are many—more than 200­—different types of viruses that can cause a cold. The most common one is called the rhinovirus, but others include the coronavirus, parainfluenza, adenovirus, enterovirus and respiratory syncytial viruses.

    Once a virus enters your child's body, it causes a reaction — the body's immune system begins to react to and fight off the foreign virus. This, in turn, causes:

    • an increase in mucus production (a runny nose)
    • swelling of the lining of the nose (making it hard to breath and congestion)
    • sneezing (from the irritation in the nose)
    • cough (from the increased mucus dripping down the throat)

    How did my child catch a cold?

    To catch a cold, your child must come in contact with one of the viruses that cause a cold, from someone else who is affected. The cold virus can be transmitted in the following ways:

    • Through the air - If a person with a cold sneezes or coughs, small amounts of the virus can be released into the air. Then, if your child breathes in that air, the virus will adhere to the membrane inside your child's nose.
    • Direct contact - This means that your child has directly touched a person who was infected. It is easy for children to spread a cold, because they touch their nose, mouth and eyes often and then touch other people or objects. It’s important to remember that viruses can be spread not just from person-to-person but from object-to-person through objects like toys that have been touched by someone with a cold.

    How long do colds last?

    The symptoms of a cold start from one to three days after your child has been in contact with the cold virus. Usually, the symptoms last about one week, but this varies in each child, and may last even up to two weeks.

    What are the symptoms of a cold?

    While each child may experience symptoms of a cold differently, some of the most common include:


    • unable to sleep
    • fussiness
    • congestion in the nose
    • sometimes vomiting and diarrhea
    • fever

    Older children:

    • stuffy, runny nose
    • scratchy, tickly throat
    • watery eyes
    • sneezing
    • mild hacking cough
    • congestion
    • sore throat
    • achy muscles and bones
    • headaches
    • low grade fever
    • chills
    • watery discharge from the nose that thickens and turns yellow or green
    • mild fatigue

    The symptoms of the common cold may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

    How is a cold different from the flu?

    A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses:

    • A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself after a period of time, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection.
    • The flu, on the other hand, can lead to complications, such as pneumonia.

    What may seem like a cold, could, in fact, be the flu. Be aware of these differences:

    Cold symptoms Flu symptoms

    Low or no fever

    High fever

    Sometimes a headache

    Always a headache

    Stuffy, runny nose

    Clear nose or stuffy nose


    Sometimes sneezing

    Mild, hacking cough

    Cough, often becoming severe

    Slight aches and pains         

    Often severe aches and pains

    Mild fatigue

    Several weeks of fatigue

    Sore throat

    Sometimes a sore throat

    Normal energy level

    Extreme exhaustion

    Who is at increased risk of catching the common cold?

    Children suffer more colds each year than adults, due to their immature immune systems and to the close physical contact with other children at school or daycare. However, the average number of colds for children and adults will vary.

    Can vitamin C prevent colds?

    Perhaps not. Many people believe taking large amounts of vitamin C will either prevent the common cold or reduce its symptoms. However, to date, studies have not shown that high amounts of vitamin C affect the onset and symptoms of the common cold. In addition, taking large quantities of vitamin C over a long period of time may, in fact, be harmful, causing diarrhea and distorting urine and blood test results.

    Can I prevent my child from getting colds?

    Taking proper preventive measures can reduce the risk of your child developing a cold:

    • Keep your child away from a person with a cold.
    • Encourage your child to wash her hands frequently and not to touch her mouth, eyes, or nose until her hands are washed.
    • Make sure her toys and play areas are properly cleaned, especially if many children are playing together.

    What are the possible complications from having a cold?

    The following are some of the complications that might occur if your child gets a cold:

    What is the relationship between cold weather and a cold?

    Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or getting chilled does not cause a cold, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). However, your child may be more likely to come down with a cold during the cold season, which is early fall to late winter). This is probably due to a variety of factors, including the following:

    • school is in session, increasing the risk that your child is exposed to the virus
    • your child may stay indoors and be in closer proximity to other people more often
    • low humidity causes dry nasal passages which are more susceptible to cold viruses
  • Tests

    How is a cold diagnosed?

    A cold will most often be diagnosed based on your child’s symptoms. However, cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies and other medical conditions.

  • How is a cold treated?

    Please remember that there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics will not help. Therefore, the goal of treatment is to relieve discomfort caused by the symptoms. Medication will not make your child's cold go away any faster.

    Your child's doctor may recommend:

    • increased fluid intake – having your child drink more liquids will help keep the lining of the nose and throat moist and help to prevent dehydration
    • avoidance of secondhand smoke – secondhand smoke will increase the irritation in the nose and throat

    To help relieve your child's congestion and nose blockage:

    • Saline nose drops may be used.
    • Use a bulb syringe to help remove your infant's mucus.
    • Place a cool mist humidifier in the room to help loosen phlegm.
    • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen, are sometimes helpful in decreasing the discomfort of colds. Consult your child's physician before giving any medication to your child.

    Is it safe to give aspirin to children?

    Do not give your child aspirin to a child without first contacting her physician. Aspirin given to children has been associated with Reye syndrome, a potentially serious and deadly disorder in children. Therefore, we recommend that aspirin (or any medication that contains aspirin) not be used to treat any viral illnesses in children.

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