By Dr Martie Conradie, MBChB (UP), Diploma in Child Health (SA)
With the temperatures dropping, that time of year where you see tissues and hear sniffles everywhere, is starting again.
Is your child maybe sneezing, coughing or complaining about a sore throat? Every parent has been there. Nowadays we have to consider the coronavirus, but the usual viruses are still more commonly found to be the culprits.
The common cold, otherwise known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection, is one of the most common illnesses in children. Most pre-schoolers will have 6 to 8 colds a year and children who are in daycare could have 10 or more. It is slightly less common in older kids.
However, there is a lot you can to do keep those cold symptoms in check. Maybe you could even prevent your kid from getting sick the next time.
Is it the flu or a cold?
These two conditions share many symptoms, and it can be hard to tell them apart. They both are respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses.
The common cold is brought to you by any one of over 200 viruses, which irritates the lining of the nose and throat resulting in inflammation. Rhinoviruses are most often the cause. You can expect symptoms such as a runny nose, red eyes, sneezing, dry cough, headache and a sore throat, but less often it can also cause a mild fever and body aches. A child with a cold usually feels quite well and has a good appetite and normal energy levels. There is a gradual one- or two-day onset and as it progresses the nasal mucus may thicken. This is usually the stage just before a cold completes its course. It usually lasts a week or two even if you do not treat it, although the runny nose might linger a little longer with a post-nasal drip and irritating cough, especially at night.
Flu is caused by several influenza viruses and symptoms usually come on more quickly and your child will seem sicker than from a cold and might complain of symptoms such as muscle aches and fever with chills more commonly.
Kids who become infected with the coronavirus may have no symptoms or their symptoms may be mild and seem similar to that of a common cold. If it is a little more severe, the symptoms can seem flu-like. However, loss of taste or smell is quite indicative of COVID-19.
How do you catch a cold?
The viruses causing colds can be spread through the air or by direct contact.
If someone with a cold sneezes or coughs the viruses disperse through the air and if you breathe in that air, the virus gets stuck on your nasal membranes.
Children very easily spread cold viruses, because they touch their nose, mouth and eyes often and then touch other people, toys or surfaces.
Can colds be prevented?
The protective measures in place for COVID has actually resulted in a reduction in the spread of other viruses such as rhinoviruses and influenza. Cleaning surfaces, sanitising and washing hands are very important to curb the spread of viruses, especially in daycare settings.
Try to avoid people who have colds and teach children to cover their mouth when they cough.
Healthy eating habits and a regular multivitamin could also help to improve a child’s immunity to be able to fight against these infections. Getting plenty of exercise and to not be exposed to smoking will also boost a child’s immune system.
There is currently not treatment to take to fully prevent colds and no vaccine to prevent every possible virus that can cause a cold. However, many cases of the flu can be prevented by getting a flu vaccine every year. Even toddlers can get a flu-shot and although they might still get a common cold that year, they will be protected from influenza and its complications.
COVID-19 vaccines are now being rolled out for older people, but studies are underway to see if the vaccines are safe in children younger than 16.
How to manage it at home
Except in newborns or in immunocompromised children, colds in healthy kids are not dangerous.
There is no specific test for the common cold and no specific treatment. It is caused by a virus and therefore antibiotics will not work. The symptoms usually go away in a week or two without treatment, but there are a few things you could do at home to improve the symptoms:
- Make sure your kids get plenty of rest and make them comfortable. Keep them at home until they feel better, because it will also reduce the risk of the cold spreading to other kids.
- Drink plenty of liquids – drinks such as water or rooibos tea are good. Your child may not feel as thirsty as they normally would and it might even be a little uncomfortable to drink, but it has to be encouraged. If they really do not want to drink, consider giving rehydrating solutions.
- Give over-the-counter treatment such as paracetamol (Never give a child aspirin-containing products, since it can result in a rare disorder called Reye’s syndrome).
- Avoid giving medicine from the cupboard that was prescribed by the doctor for a previous infection. Corticosteroid containing medicine are often prescribed by doctors if symptoms are severe, but regular use of these medications can result in health problems later in life.
- Do not use nasal decongestant sprays for more than 3 days in a row, because it may lead to a “rebound” effect causing the mucous membranes to become swollen.
- Avoid antihistamines – they are not effective treatment for colds, but they might offer some benefits if the symptoms are worsened by dust or allergens such as cat dander.
- Clear up blocked nasal passages – normal saline nasal sprays are good to use. Mucous membranes love normal saline, and it helps to keep the mucous runny as well as to heal the inflamed membranes. Also make use of a bulb syringe or similar devices to clear out the nasal passages of babies to help them to breathe easier.
- Cough mixtures – if your child is more than 1 year old, rather give honey a few times during the day than giving cough mixtures. It has been shown to be safer and possibly even more effective (children younger than 1 are at a risk of botulism which is why honey is avoided).
- Using a humidifier with hypertonic saline can relieve nasal blockages, but corticosteroid preparations should only be given when advised by the doctor.
- When a child’s nose is red and raw, you can put a little petroleum jelly on the sore area.
When should I take my child to the doctor?
For newborns or babies under 1 year old, you can rather go to the doctor earlier, especially if they struggle to feed or seem very weak. Go to the doctor if your child:
- has fever of >38˚C for more than 2 days which does not resolve after using paracetamol or ibuprofen or when there is even one episode of a fever of >40˚C (in children <3 months old go to the doctor at any time when there is a fever of >38˚C).
- has severe drowsiness or is lethargic
- refuses to eat or drink
- is wheezing or is short of breath
If COVID-19 is suspected, contact the doctor immediately and take your child for a test.
Often cold symptoms resolve after 2 weeks, but if they continue or become worse, rather take your child to the doctor. Sometimes it may start as a common cold, but other infections such as pneumonia or ear infections could follow.
May you all stay warm and healthy this winter.