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Colds in children

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Colds can make young children feel quite miserable.

On average, children catch a cold three to eight times a year, and the symptoms can last for three to four weeks (although they're worst in the first two or three days). So, it can often feel as if a preschool child is constantly unwell with a cold.

Here is some advice about what to do if your child has a cold, and information on using cold medicines for children.

What causes colds and what are the symptoms?

Colds are caused by viruses infecting the upper airways (nose, sinuses, mouth, throat, and voice box). They are not caused by bacteria, so antibiotics will not treat a cold.

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

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

How can I stop my children from getting colds?

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

You can help your children avoid colds by teaching them to wash their hands before eating or preparing food, and not to share cups, drink bottles, or anything they eat or drink with. They should also wash their hands after they have touched their face.

Also teach your children 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 children from getting colds.

How long do colds last and does treatment shorten them?

Child cold duration snapshotMost people get over a cold within one to two weeks, but the cough that goes with a cold can last up to four weeks. Click on the image to the right to see how many children still have symptoms after five or 10 days.

While your child's immune system is fighting the cold, you will notice some changes in their symptoms:

These changes are normal. They do not mean your child needs antibiotics.

There are no treatments that will make a cold go away more quickly. But your child's immune system should fight it off within one or two weeks.

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

What are the best ways to manage cold symptoms?

Make sure you read the advice on using over-the-counter cold medicines for children.

When should I take my child to the doctor?

Most colds get better within one to two weeks. Most children don't need to see a nurse or doctor. But you should take your child to see a doctor if they:

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


Seek medical help immediately if your child has any symptoms of meningitis.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Over-the-counter cold medicines and children

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2016. Last updated January 2019.


See also:

Colds in adults

Cough in children


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Page reference: 150982

Review key: HICIC-150982