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Colds in children

Wharowharo ki ngā tamariki

Colds are caused by germs (viruses) infecting the nose, sinuses, mouth, throat and voice box (upper airways).

There are hundreds of different cold viruses, which spread through the air when a person sneezes or coughs. Droplets from sneezes or coughs also settle on surfaces. You may get infected by the virus if you touch those surfaces then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.

On average, tamariki (children) catch a cold three to eight times a year. Colds tend to happen more frequently in the colder months. Tamariki tend to get fewer colds as they get older because they build up immunity to some of the viruses that can cause colds.

Symptoms of colds in children

Child cold duration snapshotCold symptoms usually last one to two weeks, though they're worse in the first two or three days. The cough that goes with a cold can last up to four weeks. Click the image to see how many tamariki still have symptoms after five or 10 days.

If your tamaiti (child) has a cold, they will have some or all of these symptoms:

A tamaiti with a cold might also have mild body aches, mild headaches and less energy than usual.

While their immune system is fighting the cold, you'll notice some changes in their symptoms:

These changes are normal. They do not mean they needs antibiotics.

Helping your child with a cold

Medicines cannot cure colds.

Antibiotics will not treat a cold and may cause side effects such as diarrhoea (the runs), thrush and tummy aches. Giving antibiotics to a tamaiti when they do not need them makes it more likely they will develop a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotics. This could make it difficult to treat any bacterial infections they get.

The best ways to treat your tamaiti for a cold are:

Traditional vapour rubs to relieve congestion shouldn't be used in pēpi (babies) or tamariki as they can cause airway irritation and breathing distress.

Always read the directions on the label of on any medication. Speak to your pharmacist or general practice team if you aren't sure.

Getting help for your child with a cold

Most colds get better within one to two weeks. Most tamariki children do not need to see a nurse or doctor. But you should take them to see a doctor if they:

You should also take them to a doctor if they have a sore throat and are Māori or Pacific or prone to strep throat infections. Strep throat needs to be treated with antibiotics to help to prevent rheumatic fever.

Preventing colds

Unlike influenza (flu), there is no vaccination for colds because they're caused by many different viruses.

You can help your tamariki avoid colds by teaching them to avoid sharing cups, drink bottles or anything they eat or drink with, and to wash their hands before eating or preparing food. They should also wash their hands after they have touched their face.

Teach them to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or their arm (but not their hand) when they sneeze or cough and then to wash their hands afterwards.

Keeping your home warm and dry and being smokefree also help to stop your tamariki from getting colds.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2021.


See also:

Colds in adults

Cough in children

Eating and drinking when you're unwell


Page reference: 150982

Review key: HICIC-150982