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Children and Colds

​Your child probably will have more colds, or what are called "upper respiratory infections," than any other illness. In the first two years of life alone, most children have eight to ten colds. And if there are older school-age children in your house, you may see even more, since colds easily pass from one child to another.

That's the bad news, but there is some good news, too: Most colds go away by themselves and do not lead to anything worse.

How colds spread

Colds are caused by viruses (these are much smaller than bacteria). A sneeze or a cough by someone with a virus can then be breathed in by another person, making them sick. The virus may also go from one person to another, in the following ways:

  1. Children or adults with the virus can cough, sneeze, or touch their nose and get some of the virus on their hands.

  2. They then touch the hand of a healthy person.

  3. The healthy person then touches their own nose, and the virus grows in the healthy person's nose or throat. A cold can then develop.

  4. This can happen again and again, with the virus moving from that newly sick child or adult to another person.

How to tell when a child has a cold

Once the virus gets into the body and grows more and more viruses, your child will get some of these signs and symptoms:

  • Runny nose (first, a clear liquid coming out; later, a thicker, often colored mucus)

  • Sneezing

  • Low fever (101–102 degrees Fahrenheit [38.3–38.9 degrees Celsius]), particularly at night

  • Not wanting to eat

  • Sore throat and, perhaps, difficulty swallowing

  • Cough

  • Fussiness on-and-off

  • Slightly swollen glands

  • Pus on the tonsils, especially in children three years and older, may mean your child has an infection called strep.

If your child has a typical cold without major problems, the symptoms should go away slowly after seven to ten days.

When to call the pediatrician

Older children with a cold don't usually need to see a doctor unless they look very sick. If a child is three months or younger, however, call the pediatrician at the first sign of illness. With young babies, it may be hard to tell when they are very sick. Colds can quickly become dangerous problems, such as bronchiolitis, croup, or pneumonia.

For a child older than three months, call the pediatrician if:

  • The openings of the nose (nostrils) are get larger with each breath, the skin above or below the ribs sucks in with each breath (retractions), or your child is breathing fast or having any trouble breathing.

  • The lips or nails turn blue.

  • Nasal mucus lasts for longer than 10 to 14 days.

  • The cough just won't go away (it lasts more than a week).

  • They have ear pain.

  • Their temperature is over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius).

  • They are too sleepy or cranky.

Your child's doctor may want to see your child, or may ask you to watch them closely and report back. They will want to know if your child doesn't get better each day and is not completely better within one week from the start of her illness.

How to treat a cold

Unfortunately, there's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics may be used to fight infections caused by bacteria, but they have no effect on viruses. The best thing you can do is to make your child comfortable, gets plenty of rest and drinks extra amounts of liquids.

See Caring for Your Child's Cold or Flu for more information on treatment options.


For babies under three months old, the best prevention against the common cold is to keep them away from people who have one. This is especially true during the winter, when more people are sick with viruses. A virus that causes a mild illness in an older child or an adult can cause a more serious one in an infant.

Teach your child to sneeze or cough away from others, into the crook of their elbow or shoulder. Even using a tissue (and putting it in the trash right away) or handkerchief is better than having your child cover their mouth with their hand when sneezing or coughing. If the virus lands on her hand, it can spread to whatever they touch—a sibling, a friend, or a toy

Everyone should be encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This can help stop colds and other viruses from spreading.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five 7th edition (Copyright © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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