Colds suck. But as we say in our family, “it’s part of life.” On average, kids get 6 to 10 colds per year, even more if they attend daycare, drop-in centers or school. Most colds last between 6 and 14 days, which is much longer than parents usually expect. And while people are most contagious during the first few days of symptoms, colds can be spread at any time while the virus runs its course.
Since kids don’t usually care about runny noses or spreading germs, the cold virus easily gets onto toys, clothing and children’s hands, where it can live for several hours. When another child comes in contact with the virus and then rubs their nose or eyes, kapow! The cold spreads.
Contrary to popular belief, sleeping in drafty rooms, getting chilled or going outside with wet hair won’t trigger the onset of a cold. The virus needs to come in contact with our eyes, nose or mouth in order to be passed. While there may be some advantages to our children’s immune system if they catch multiple viruses early in life, using a few preventative measures can help parents get through cold season.
You can try to prevent colds
While this may seem like common sense, according to the Center for Disease Control, it is by far the best way to prevent the spread of germs and viruses. Pay attention to the backs of hands, in between the fingers and under fingernails, and use regular old soap and warm water.
It is the friction of washing that scrubs away germs, and singing Happy Birthday twice is how long you and your children should wash for. Hand sanitizer can be used when warm soapy water isn’t available, but the CDC warns that it needs to contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective, and even then, it isn’t as effective as washing hands properly.
Teaching young children this type of etiquette is just good practice, even though most cold viruses don’t spread easily through the air. This method does prevent cold germs from getting on hands that touch toys, doorknobs, books, and other kids faces.
Cold germs can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. Periodically cleaning and disinfecting common, high traffic areas can help keep things in check. Disinfect places like doorknobs, toys, kitchen and bathroom taps, towels and cellphones that can be a hotbed for germs.
Wipe them down regularly and wash towels, stuffies, blankets and pillows frequently. Easily make your own disinfectant by mixing ¼ cup bleach into a gallon of warm water. Remember that if you choose to use wipes instead, use a new one for each surface you are cleaning.
If a cold is running wild in your house, make sure each family member is using their own towel in the bathroom, and not sharing things like cups, utensils, pillows, and lip balm.
Making sure both the parents and children are getting proper nutrition, good quality sleep and reducing stress helps to keep our immune system strong. An article published by Harvard Medical School suggests, “following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward keeping your immune system strong and healthy.”
Eating healthy foods, getting proper sleep and exercising are some good starting points. When our immune system is run down, we are less able to fight off viruses. Parents tend to make sure their children are healthy and happy, but sometimes this comes at the expense of their own health. Modeling a healthy lifestyle benefits everyone, and may help keep the cold season from making a sneak attack in your household!
You can help your child fight a cold
Since cold season runs for many months, most likely someone in your circle will have one at some point, and you’ll be in contact with the virus. Cold medication may help adults treat symptoms, but according to the Mayo Clinic, not even the “natural” cold medication is recommended for children under 5.
Cold viruses love dry conditions. A cool mist humidifier beside your child’s bed or crib helps to keep the air from getting too dry and irritating nasal passages or leaving you little one with a dry, scratchy throat. It may also help loosen congestion if they are already sick. You need to change the water daily to avoid molds and bacteria from growing.
Our bodies heal when we are resting, so it’s a good idea to slow down for a day or two if you notice your child on the verge of getting sick. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois recommends resting and sleeping more than usual during the first 72 hours of a cold, and withholding exercise for the same amount of time.
So cancel gymnastics class or soccer practice. Cuddle up on the couch for some snuggles and read your favorite books. Have a restful couple of days and give your little one the chance to nap if they need it. It will pay off in the long run!
If you notice your child is getting congested, rather than propping them up with pillows, which can be dangerous for very young children, tuck a few towels under the mattress itself. Creating an elevated sleeping position helps the child breathe easier, will help the mucus drain, and may help alleviate postnasal drip.
Creating too steep an incline might result in them sliding to the foot of the bed, but a pillow or towel underneath the head of the mattress should offer enough elevation.
To relieve the aches, pain and fever associated with cold viruses, the Mayo Clinic recommends giving only acetaminophen for children 6 months or younger, and for children older than 6 months give either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Unless prescribed by your doctor, do not give over the counter cough and cold medicine to children under 6. Keeping your child comfortable allows them to rest more, which will help them feel better and fight the cold.
Perhaps it’s because the warm broth soothes a scratchy throat, or that the warm liquid and steam may ease congestion and help the mucus to flow. In many cultures, chicken soup or a variation on it is used to treat colds.
According to researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory substances that can help ease cold symptoms. If you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned recipe, try this one from Food Network.
It may be time to call the doctor
Two weeks may seem like a long time to have a cold, especially when it’s your baby or toddler who is under the weather. Time. Drags. On. The cold virus has to run it’s course, and symptoms like the color of mucus change along the way (green does not necessarily mean it’s a sinus infection). So how do you know when things morph from run-of-the-mill cold into something more serious?
When the cold virus infiltrates the space behind the eardrum, it can cause fluid buildup and congestion that usually causes an extremely painful earache. A high fever, persistent crying and pulling on the ear are common symptoms in small children. Best to see your doctor who may prescribe ear drops or antibiotics to clear it up.
Whistling or wheezing sound when you exhale, frequent, intermittent cough with shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and shallow breath as well as chest pain are all common childhood asthma signs and symptoms.
The Mayo Clinic suggests the first signs of asthma in children are often triggered by colds. Seek emergency care if your child is using their abdominal muscles to breathe, or trying so hard to breathe that the abdomen is sucked under the ribs, or the skin on the neck is pulled tightly in as they inhale.
Or, if your child has extremely fast and shallow breathing (more than 40 breaths per minute), bluish skin, especially around the lips and fingernails, if your child needs to sit up in order to breathe, or if they have difficulty eating or drinking due to the effort of breathing, see the doctor.
An infection of the sinuses or nasal passages usually results in facial pain, swelling around the eyes, fever, bad headaches, cough, sore throat, bad breath and a loss of taste and smell.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology states that young children are prone to developing infections of the nose, sinus and ears, and they suggest contacting your doctor if your child has sinusitis symptoms or a cold with fever that lasts more than 10 days.
Common in school age children, symptoms include a painful throat and difficulty swallowing, swollen, red tonsils that can have white spots or pus on them, fever, headache, exhaustion as well as pain and/or vomiting (more common in young children).
Your doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics as well as pain medication.
Babies, toddlers and young children are in a high-risk group making pneumonia an especially dangerous complication for them. The Mayo Clinic advises seeking immediate medical attention if you have any pneumonia signs: severe cough with large amounts of mucus, shortness of breath, sharp chest pains, severe chills or sweating accompanied by a persistent fever higher than 102 F.
An irritation of the trachea and mucous membranes of the bronchi in the lungs, the symptoms include a cough that persists longer than 3 weeks, a cough that wakes your little one up in the night combined with a fever higher than 100.4 F, a cough that produces blood in the mucus and wheezing or difficulty breathing.
This is usually a milder illness in children, but it is still important to your doctor monitor it. With any illness, seek immediate medical attention if your child is having difficulty breathing.
Usually affecting children under the age of 2, and most common in babies under 6 months old, it is an inflammatory condition of the smallest airways in the lungs, the bronchioles. The symptoms are similar to that of a common cold—runny nose, congestions and sometimes a fever.
Bronchiolitis usually presents itself as wheezing, and it is important to seek immediate care if your baby looks like they are having difficulty breathing.
Characterized by its harsh cough that sounds like a barking seal, other Croup symptoms include fever and hoarseness. Seek immediate medical care if your baby or toddler has loud and high-pitched breathing sounds when they inhale, trouble swallowing and excessive drooling, blue or gray skin around the nose, mouth or fingernails, and a fever of 103.5 F or higher.
There are many things we can do to prevent cold viruses from infiltrating our households. But even the most fastidious hand washers will likely end up with a cold or two per year. When the virus strikes, remember that a little extra time in bed and a bowl of hot soup will help!