14 Tips for Treating Kids' Colds

Flu, sick or cold child with parent sneezing, blowing and wiping runny nose while ill with covid virus, sinus and allergy symptoms in bed at home. Mother caring for stuffy and congested little son

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Children catch a lot of colds. Not only do they touch a bunch of germ-laden surfaces and then touch their faces, but they may also still be developing their immune system responses. Treating a kid’s cold can be tricky. Depending on the age of your child, they may have trouble describing the symptoms they are feeling. One thing’s clear, however. No over-the-counter medications can cure a common cold. So what’s a parent to do? Follow these 14 steps to help your child get through the stuffy-headed misery.

When Kids Have Colds, Keep Them Home

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Talk to any school nurse and you’ll find that plenty of parents send their children to school or daycare when they shouldn’t. Don’t be that parent.

If your child has a fever over 101°, or any fever just as he is starting to get sick, keep him home, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Even if your child doesn't have a sky-high fever, consider keeping him home if he's too sick to take part in school activities or if he is contagious.

Staying home may help your child get better more quickly and avoid spreading germs to his peers.

Treat a Fever


A fever is a sign that your child is fighting her infection. If the fever climbs above 100.2° and she has aches and pains, give her acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).

Use products and dosages recommended for your child’s age says Peter Cardiello, MD, a pediatrician for the Northern Region of Youth Consultations Service in East Orange, New Jersey. Never give a child aspirin because it's associated with Reye's syndrome (RS) says the Mayo Clinic.

If your child is younger than 3 months old and has a rectal fever over 100.4°, or is between 3 months and 3 years old and has a temperature over 102.2°, seek immediate medical attention.

Prevent Dehydration


Keeping children well-hydrated is especially important when they are sick.

"There isn’t one best fluid," says Dr. Cardiello. "Water, watered-down juice, flat ginger ale, and Pedialyte are all good."

Frozen Popsicles and even good old-fashioned chicken soup will also ensure that your child is sufficiently hydrated.

Combat a Stuffy Nose


If your child is congested and having trouble breathing, one natural remedy is to clear the nose with saline drops, says Dr. Cardiello. Nasal sprays and decongestants are not recommended for children.

Research suggests that children ages 6 to 10 who receive a nasal saline rinse recover faster from colds or flu.

"Use two to three drops per nostril while the child is lying on their back," recommends Dr. Cardiello. Then have your child gently blow her nose.

If your child is too young to blow her own nose, you can use a nasal bulb (available in drugstores) to suction out the gunk.

Treat Irritated Skin

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Constantly wiping a child’s nose can make it red and sore. One way to prevent this is to wipe with a warm, wet cloth.

If your child does have an irritated nose despite your best efforts, gently rub Aquaphor or petroleum jelly on the area to soothe it.

Keep Their Hands Clean


By the time your child is old enough to start daycare—and get exposed to a steady stream of germs—he is probably also old enough to wash his own hands.

Teach your children to wash their hands regularly, especially after coughing or sneezing and before eating. This habit can go a long way to stop the spread of disease and keep them healthy. A good trick to make sure they wash thoroughly is to tell them to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.

Hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol can also be an easier way to get those little hands germ-free!

Consider Honey


Honey is not safe for children under the age of 1 because of the risk of infant botulism, but it may help soothe an older child’s throat and cough.

In a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, giving half a teaspoon of honey to children ages 2 to 5 at bedtime seemed to suppress coughing, although more research is needed. (In the study, children ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 18 also benefited from 1 and 2 teaspoons of honey, respectively.)

"In my experience, while there isn’t a lot of medicinal evidence that honey works to stop a cough, it may help the child feel a little better," says Dr. Cardiello.

Steam up Their Lungs


If your child has a cough, especially the kind known as croupy cough, which sounds like hacking or barking, run a hot, steamy shower and bring her into the bathroom; it will help open up her airways. Aim for 15-minute sessions, four times a day, says Dr. Cardiello.

The humidity relieves the upper-airway swelling that can cause the croupy cough.

Try a Humidifier

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A cool-mist humidifier can be helpful because the mist can loosen any congestion and help your child breathe better. Dr. Cardiello recommends staying away from warm-mist humidifiers, as a child could get burned if they touch the humidifier.

Regardless of which humidifier you purchase, thoroughly clean and disinfect it at least every few days. Improper cleaning (or none at all) could allow mold and bacteria to grow inside.

Let Your Child Rest


To help your child get better as fast as possible, make sure she gets adequate rest every night.

"Children need at least 8 to 12 hours of sleep every night, depending on their age," says Dr. Cardiello. "Getting enough sleep can help prevent getting colds." If your child is already sick, she might need even more sleep than usual.

Be Smart About Antibiotics


Antibiotics can treat some bacterial infections, but these types of infections are usually not what ails your child.

"Colds cannot be treated with an antibiotic since colds are caused by a virus. Antibiotics do not have any effect on a cold and are not a useful treatment," says Dr. Cardiello.

Plus, unnecessary antibiotic use can cause immunity to the medication and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Unfortunately, there are no antivirals for the cold-causing virus. Flu antivirals may be given to kids with conditions like asthma that make it harder for them to fight the flu, says Dr. Cardiello.

Skip the Cough Syrup


Parents have long reached for over-the-counter cough and cold remedies, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer recommends them for children younger than 2, and some could have serious side effects in kids.

Don’t worry about a child’s daytime cough, as it can help release phlegm and reduce congestion. Coughs usually go away on their own in three to five days.

If your child is older than 4 years old and has trouble sleeping at night because of a cough, you may be tempted to try a cough remedy. But keep in mind that such medications haven’t been shown to help coughs in children, and they may be harmful, according to the AAP, which recommends increasing fluids and humidity to ease coughs.

Don’t Ignore Serious Coughs


If your child has been coughing for more than a week, see his doctor. “If a cough has gone on for three to six weeks, especially if the child is on antibiotics, then a chest X-ray may be needed,” says Dr. Cardiello.

A persistent cough, particularly at night, can be a symptom of asthma. And a severe cough, followed by a whooping noise as the child struggles to inhale, can be an indication of pertussis, or whooping cough. A drop in immunization rates has led to pertussis outbreaks in recent years. Children may be at risk, even if they have been vaccinated.

Seek Help for Your Child's Cold

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Don’t be afraid to see your child's pediatrician—even if you think it’s just a cold.

This is especially true if a cold lasts more than five days, as your child could have a sinus infection or even pneumonia. An ear infection is also a possibility, especially if your child is pulling on his ear.

When you do see the doctor, find out when he expects your child to feel better. If your child does not get better or feels even worse, a phone call is warranted to discuss the next step, notes Dr. Cardiello.

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