Your pregnancy and baby guide

Colds, coughs and ear infections in children

Children's colds

It's normal for a child to have 8 or more colds a year.

This is because there are hundreds of different cold viruses and young children have no immunity to any of them as they have never had them before.

They gradually build up immunity and get fewer colds.

Most colds get better in 5 to 7 days, but can take up to 2 weeks in small children.

Here are some suggestions for how to ease the symptoms in your child: 

  • Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids.
  • Saline nose drops can help loosen dried snot and relieve a stuffy nose. Ask your pharmacist, GP or health visitor about them.
  • If your child has a fever, pain or discomfort, children's paracetamol or ibuprofen can help. Children with asthma may not be able to take ibuprofen, so check with your pharmacist, GP or health visitor first. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
  • Encourage the whole family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.

Cough and cold remedies for children

Children under 6 shouldn't have over-the-counter cough and cold remedies, including decongestants (medicines to clear a blocked nose), unless advised to by a GP or pharmacist.

Children's sore throats

Sore throats are often caused by viral illnesses such as colds or flu.

Your child's throat may be dry and sore for a day or 2 before a cold starts. You can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce the pain.

Most sore throats clear up on their own after a few days.

If your child has a sore throat for more than 4 days, a high temperature and is generally unwell, see a GP.

If they're unable to swallow fluids or saliva (and not just because it hurts them to swallow), go to A&E or call 999 immediately as they'll need urgent treatment in hospital.

Find your nearest A&E department

Children's coughs

Children often cough when they have a cold because of mucus trickling down the back of the throat.

If your child is feeding, drinking, eating and breathing normally and there's no wheezing, a cough isn't usually anything to worry about.

Although it's upsetting to hear your child cough, coughing helps clear away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat.

If your child is over the age of 1, they can try drinking a warm drink of lemon and honey.

To make hot lemon with honey at home, you need to:

  • squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
  • add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
  • drink while still warm (do not give hot drinks to small children)

If your child has had a cough that's lasted longer than 3 weeks, see your GP.

If your child's temperature is very high, or they feel hot and shivery, they may have a chest infection. You should take them to a GP or you can call 111.

If this is caused by bacteria rather than a virus, your GP will prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection. Antibiotics won't soothe or stop the cough straight away.

If a cough continues for a long time, especially if it's worse at night or is brought on by your child running about, it could be a sign of asthma.

Take them to a GP, who will be able to check if your child has asthma.

If your child is finding it hard to breathe, go to A&E or call 999 immediately as they'll need urgent treatment in hospital.

Find your nearest A&E department

Find out more about coughs

Croup

A child with croup has a distinctive barking cough and will make a harsh sound, known as stridor, when they breathe in. 

They may also have a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature.

Croup can usually be diagnosed by a GP and treated at home.

But if your child's symptoms are severe and they're finding it hard to breathe, go to A&E or call 999 immediately as they'll need urgent treatment in hospital.

Find your nearest A&E department

Read more about the symptoms of croup.

Children's ear infections

Ear infections are common in babies and small children. They often follow a cold and sometimes cause a high temperature.

A baby or toddler may pull or rub at an ear. Other possible symptoms include fever, irritability, crying, difficulty feeding, restlessness at night, and a cough.

If your child has earache, with or without fever, you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen at the recommended dose.

Try one medicine first and, if it doesn't work, you can try giving the other one.

You shouldn't give children paracetamol and ibuprofen at the same time, unless advised to by a healthcare professional.

Don't put any oil, eardrops or cotton buds into your child's ear, unless your GP advises you to do so.

Most ear infections are caused by viruses, which can't be treated with antibiotics.

They'll just get better by themselves, usually within about 3 days.

After an ear infection, your child may have some hearing loss.

Their hearing should get better within a few weeks. But if the problem lasts for any longer than this, ask your GP for advice.

Find out more about ear infections (otitis media)

Glue ear in children

Repeated middle ear infections (otitis media) may lead to glue ear (otitis media with effusion), where sticky fluid builds up and can affect your child's hearing. 

This may lead to unclear speech or behavioural problems.

If you smoke, your child is more likely to develop glue ear and will get better more slowly.

Your GP can give you advice on treating glue ear and can help you stop smoking.

Find out more about how to stop smoking

See glue ear for further information.

Media last reviewed: 10/10/2017

Media review due: 10/10/2020

Page last reviewed: 24/09/2018
Next review due: 24/09/2021