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How to treat your child's common cold

How to treat your child's common cold

BY LINDA COOTE
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2010

My child seems to have one cold after another. Is this normal?

Some children do seem to have the constant sniffles, but research shows that during the preschool years, children average seven to eight colds per year. On any given day, 10 per cent of children have a cold.

What's causing them?

The main cause is that your child is being exposed to new viruses. There are at least 200 different cold viruses. The younger your child, the less previous exposure he or she will have had to viruses and, therefore, the less protection.

How does my child catch a cold?

Colds are a viral infection of the nose and throat. Cold germs are mainly transmitted to your child from the hands of another child who is suffering from a cold. The virus is then brought to the nose by normal face-touching habits. Since cold viruses can survive on toys, door knobs, and other objects for up to three hours, they're also passed to your child's hands by such contaminated objects. Airborne droplets of germs from sneezing or coughing are a rare means of cold transmission.

Now the good news: cold weather, cold winds, drafts, air conditioners and wet feet do not increase the chances that your child will come down with a cold.

How should I treat my child's cold?

The main symptom of a cold is the sudden onset of a runny or stuffy nose. The benefit of all this nasal mucus is that it washes the viruses and bacteria out of the nose and sinuses. Often a sore throat and fever are also present. More than half the time, the cold will include a cough, hoarseness, or pink watery eyes. If you're certain your child has a simple cold, here's what you can do:

1. For a runny nose with profuse clear discharge, the only treatment needed is to clear the nose periodically. Sniffing and swallowing the secretions is best, because blowing the nose may force the infection into the ears or sinuses. Since most children are unable to blow the nose or sniff until age four, use a soft rubber suction bulb to remove the secretions if they are bothering your child. Apply petroleum jelly to the nasal openings to protect them from irritations. Medicine for this stage is not recommended unless your child has a nasal allergy. Also, drying up the nose may be harmful since the discharge is the nose's way of ridding itself of viruses.

2. For a dry or stuffy nose with little discharge: Use warm water or saline nose drops followed by blowing or suctioning. Most stuffy noses are blocked by dry mucus. Suction alone or blowing the nose cannot remove it. Warm tap water or saline nose drops are better than any medicine you can buy when it comes to loosening up mucus so that suctioning can work. You can make your own saline nose drops by adding a half teaspoon of salt to one cup of warm water. Put two or three drops on each side. Repeat this until the nose is open. Also use a humidifier. Moist air keeps the nasal mucus from drying up. Opening the nose is especially important for young infants because they can't drink from a bottle or nurse unless their nose is clear. Caution: during the first year of life, use one drop at a time and do one nostril at a time.

3. Your main job is keeping the nose open, but here's what to do for other symptoms:

  • For fevers over 39.0 C (102.2 F), muscle aches, or headaches, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • For sore throats, use hard candy for children over four years old, and warm chicken broth at any age beyond one year.
  • For coughs, use cough drops for children over six years old, and corn syrup for younger children over the age of one.
  • For pink eyes, rinse them frequently with wet cotton balls.

Remember: There are good colds and bad colds. Good colds last one week, bad colds last two weeks.

When should I start to be concerned?

Symptoms should start to improve in three or four days unless your child develops a complication. Minor cold symptoms such as a congested nose can normally last one to two weeks. Call your child's healthcare provider if any of the following changes occur:

1. The eyelids develop a yellow discharge or are stuck together after a nap. This means your child may need some antibiotic eye drops.

2. Your child acts like he's having an ear ache or is unusually cranky. This points to an ear infection. So does a yellow or cloudy discharge coming from the ear canal. An ear infection is the most common complication of a cold.

3. Your child develops pressure or pain on the face overlying a sinus (that means around the eye or over the cheekbone). Your child can't breathe through the nose because it's blocked with thick yellow secretions that can't be removed with nasal washes. The openings of the nose become raw and scabbed over. Any of these mean your child could have a sinus infection.

4. Your child develops difficulty breathing that is not better after you clean out his nose. This may mean he could be getting pneumonia.

5. The fever lasts for more than 3 days. This increases the chances that your child has developed a bacterial complication, such as an ear or sinus infection.

6. Yellow or green nasal secretions are overrated. They are a normal part of the body's reaction to a cold. As an isolated symptom, they do not mean your child has a sinus infection.

If you have any questions about your child's health, consult your health-care provider.

Linda Coote is a registered nurse and manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region's telehealth service.

Wave: January / February 2010

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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