Winter 2014 Health Link Online

HealthLink Online

Uniting Children, Parents, Caregivers, and Health Professionals

Colds, Coughs and Runny Noses

Colds, Coughs and Runny Noses

 Colds, coughs and runny noses are more common in the winter than in any other season. Poor circulation of air, dry heated air and crowded indoor spaces make it easier to share germs that make people sick.

The average child has 3 to 10 colds a year. Children in their first couple of years of child care or school have one or two more colds than children their age who receive care only at home and who have no siblings to bring infection home. After three years of age, children in child care for a year or more have fewer colds than those who have not built immunity by being in group care.

At least 100 different kinds of viruses can cause cold symptoms. The symptoms include runny nose, a scratchy or sore throat, headache, cough, sneezing, fussiness, muscle aches or tiredness. Some children may have a low grade fever. A mild rise in temperature indicates that the body is working to fight a problem. A fever helps the body fight infection. These fevers do not need treatment as long as the child is not uncomfortable.

No medication cures the common cold. Multiple research studies confirm that over-the-counter cold medications are not helpful and may cause complications. So, what can you do for a child with a cold?

  • Keep nasal passages open when mucus gets thick. Use saline nose drops, spray or mist to thin mucus so it drains more easily.
  • Encourage the child to sit up or sleep on a mattress that has something under the head end of it, so mucus will drain away. Swallowed mucus passes into the stomach and out of the body harmlessly. Don’t just put a pillow under the child’s head. Cocking the child’s head on the chest may make secretions puddle in the back of the throat.
  • Teach children to blow their noses gently.
  • Offer lots of fluids to drink. Water is a good drink. For children over 12 months of age, warm weak tea with lemon and honey tastes good and may soothe throat tickles. Children under 12 months of age should not be given honey.
  • Use a humidifier to keep the humidity around 30-50% during the winter months. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid growth of bacteria and mold and their subsequent discharge into the air. Daily sanitizing with a disinfectant prevents mold from growing in the machine.
  • Wash hands if there might have been contact with mucus, eyes, nose or mouth. Proper hand hygiene helps reduce the spread of cold viruses to others. 
  • Avoid using medicines unless a health care professional determines one is needed. Coughing can occur when the child has a throat tickle from a runny nose, has an ear infection, throat irritation, asthma, or pneumonia. Medications that are sold to stop or suppress coughs usually contain sedatives or antihistamines. Antihistamines may help reduce allergy symptoms, but do nothing for other causes of cough. Some make children sleepy. If a child has asthma, coughing usually means the child needs asthma medicine to help open airways and reduce mucus production. Be sure you have an asthma action plan for any child known to have asthma.

For a cough, try keeping the body well-hydrated by drinking a lot of fluid, and making sure the air is properly humidified. If that doesn’t help, the child’s health care professional needs to determine what is causing the cough and recommend proper treatment.

For guidance and handouts for parents and staff about many types of infectious diseases in child care, see the 3rd edition of Managing Infectious Diseases in Child Care and Schools, A Quick Reference Guide, 2013. You can buy the updated book from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Go to or call 888/227-1770.

Editor’s. notes: This article is a summary and update of articles that appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of Health Link. Photo permission granted