Colds in Children: Causes, Symptoms, Tips and Remedies

If your little one never seems to stop sniffling, coughing and feeling cranky, you're in good company: Many healthy children catch between eight and 10 colds or other viral infections in the first two years of life, and their symptoms can last for up to 10 days (and sometimes longer), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Plus, if your child is in day care, he may get sick even more often, since he's in close contact with a lot of other little ones.

The good news: Most colds go away on their own — and getting sick often builds up your toddler’s immune system in the long run, helping him fend off the next bug that comes his way. While there's no cure for the common cold, check in with your pediatrician if your toddler has ear pain or a temperature over 101.5 degrees F, or if his cold symptoms seem more severe than usual. A call to the doctor can be helpful anyway if you're at all concerned.

What Causes Toddler Colds?

The common children’s cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and it can be caused by more than 200 varieties of contagious viruses that can live in the air we breathe and on the surfaces we touch. That means that if someone with a cold breathes (or sneezes) on your child, or if your child picks up something that an infected person has touched, he’ll likely get exposed to the cold virus and may come down with cold symptoms.

Toddler Cold Symptoms

Most toddler cold symptoms tend not to be severe and are similar to those of adult colds. They can include:

  • Runny nose (discharge is watery at first, then becomes thicker and opaque and sometimes yellowish or greenish)
  • Congestion or stuffiness
  • Dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Sore or scratchy throat (which can be difficult to spot in a toddler)
  • Headache
  • Mild fever, especially in the evening
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and crankiness

How Long Do Toddler Colds Last?

The common cold usually lasts seven to 10 days in toddlers but can linger as long as two weeks. A residual nighttime cough, which may not appear until the end of the cold, may last longer.

Cold Remedies for Toddlers

What to Give a 1-Year-Old for a Cold

Since toddlers this young don’t know how to blow their noses, you can put saline nasal drops in your 1-year-old’s nose to loosen clogged mucus. Consider trying a suction bulb to gently extract excess mucus for an extra stuffy nose. You can also raise the head of your toddler’s crib by putting a couple of pillows underneath the mattress.

What to Give a 2-Year-Old for a Cold

Keep the tissues handy and teach your toddler to blow his nose. Saline nasal drops can also help loosen up crusty mucus that may be clogging his nostrils. If he’s sleeping in a big-kid bed, offer him extra pillows to keep his head raised. Otherwise, prop up the crib mattress as described above.

What to Give Kids Ages 3 and Up for a Cold

Experts strongly advise parents never to give over-the-counter cough and cold medications to toddlers under the age of 4. Studies have shown that these drugs are ineffective and can cause serious side effects in younger children. In fact, the AAP recommends parents always check with their pediatrician first before offering cough or cold medications to children under the age of 6. If your doctor does give you the okay, be sure to use the dosing syringe or cup that comes with the medicine to avoid potentially dangerous dosing errors.

What to Give Toddlers of All Ages for a Cold

Unfortunately there’s no cure for the common cold in toddlers. Antibiotics are made to treat bacterial infections, which means they have no effect at all on the common cold and can actually be harmful if overused, killing good bacteria in your child’s system.

Instead, try to make your child as comfortable as possible. Spread moisturizing ointment lightly on the rims of his nostrils and under the nose to help prevent chapping and soreness. Make breathing easier by putting a humidifier in your little one’s room so the moist air can help reduce congestion. Opt for a cold-mist one to keep your toddler safe in case he gets too close to it.

There’s no need to medicate every fever; a fever simply lets you know the body is waging war against an infection. But since that fever can make your child feel hot and bothered and keep him from sleeping, you may want to put a cool compress on your toddler's head and dress him in light, breathable fabrics. Ask your doctor if he or she recommends acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower your child's temp — if taken as directed, both are safe for toddlers.

Your little one may not feel like drinking, but do your best to keep him hydrated, since fever can cause kids to lose fluids. Offer water, juice, Pedialyte, popsicles and chicken soup without large chunks of food. (Chicken soup is more than just hydrating, by the way: The blend of nutrients may help ease the swelling in the upper respiratory tract and relieve soreness in the throat. Plus, the warm broth and its soothing steamy vapors loosen the mucus that causes congestion.) Be sure to offer your child vitamin-C-rich foods and drinks each day. Frequent small meals may be more appealing than three bigger ones.


When to Call the Doctor

If your toddler is between the ages of 1 and 3 years old, call your doctor if his temperature reaches 101.5 degrees F or higher, if he pulls on his ears day or night, or has symptoms that last longer than 10 days.

Allergies could be responsible if your toddler seems to have frequent to continuous colds and a chronically runny nose, especially when accompanied by dark under-eye circles. If your child experiences these symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Also call if your toddler:

  • Is very lethargic
  • Has zero appetite
  • Has a seizure
  • Has blue lips or fingernails
  • Has developed greenish-yellow, foul-smelling discharge from the nose or coughing
  • Is wheezing
  • Is breathing more rapidly than usual
  • Has chest discomfort
  • Has a cough that’s getting worse or continues during the daytime after other symptoms are gone
  • Has swollen glands in the neck

How to Prevent Colds in Toddlers

The best way to prevent a cold is to wash your child’s hands regularly (especially before eating and after using the bathroom if he’s potty-trained) and to teach your toddler hand-washing basics. Can’t get to a sink? Hand-sanitizing gels will do in a pinch. And try to stay away from anyone with a cold if possible. If you have a cold, wash your hands frequently to avoid passing it on.

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