Colds in children 

Young children get colds quite often because their immune system is still developing.

It can be worrying when your child gets a cold, but it's not usually serious and normally passes within two weeks.

Below are the answers to some commonly asked questions about colds in children.

Is my child's cold serious?

Colds aren't usually serious, although young children are at an increased risk of developing further problems, such as ear infections.

Very occasionally, more serious problems such as pneumonia can develop, so it's important to keep a close eye on your child.

Read more about spotting signs of serious illness in children.

What is the difference between adult and child colds?

Children get colds far more often than adults. While adults usually have two to four colds a year, children can catch as many as 8 to 12.

The symptoms of a cold are generally similar in adults and children, including a blocked or runny nose, sneezing and a high temperature (fever).

Most colds in children get better on their own without treatment, although they may take a little bit longer to recover than an adult would.

Sometimes it may seem as though you child has had a cold for a very long time, when in fact they've had several different minor infections with a short recovery time in between. 

When should I see a doctor?

You should seek medical advice if:

  • your child is under three months old and has a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above, or is between three and six months old and has a temperature of 39C (102.2F) or above
  • their symptoms last more than three weeks
  • they seem to be getting worse rather than better
  • they have chest pain or are coughing up bloodstained phlegm – this could be a sign of a bacterial chest infection that needs treatment with antibiotics
  • they're finding it difficult to breathe – seek medical help immediately from your GP surgery or local hospital
  • they have, or seem to have, severe earache (babies with earache often rub their ears and seem irritable) as they could have an ear infection that may need antibiotic treatment
  • they have a persistent or severely sore throat – they may have bacterial tonsillitis, which needs antibiotic treatment
  • they develop any other worrying symptoms

Why won't my doctor prescribe antibiotics?

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, so do not respond to antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, where bacterial infections become less easily treatable.

Your doctor is likely to prescribe antibiotics only if your child has developed a bacterial infection in addition to their cold.

What can I do to help my child?

The following tips may help your child cope with the symptoms of a cold:

  • encourage your child to rest and make sure they drink plenty of fluids – water is fine, but warm drinks can be soothing
  • if they have a blocked nose, you can make their breathing easier by raising the pillow end of your child's bed or cot by putting books or bricks under the legs, or placing a pillow under the mattress (although you shouldn't put anything under the mattress of a baby younger than one year old)
  • liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen can help ease a fever and discomfort – check the dosage instructions on the packaging and never give aspirin to children under the age of 16
  • a warm, moist atmosphere can ease breathing if your child has a blocked nose – take your child into the bathroom and run a hot bath or shower, or use a vaporiser to humidify the air
  • keep the room aired and at a comfortable temperature, and don't let your child get too hot – cover them with a lightweight sheet, for example 

Speak to your pharmacist or GP for advice if you're not sure how to look after your child or what medications are suitable for them to take.

More advice and information

You can find more detailed information and advice about looking after your child in the NHS Choices pregnancy and baby guide.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017