Care and Comfort for the Common Cold

Posted on: December 15, 2015

Sneezing and coughing, symptoms of the common cold, are prevalent throughout the winter, and not surprisingly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, children average about six to eight colds each year. Understanding the symptoms, listening to your child and knowing when to see your doctor will help you provide the care and comfort your child needs.

The first thing to know about colds is that they’re caused by a virus, and that’s why doctors do not prescribe antibiotics in these instances, as they only work for bacterial infections. In fact, most of the symptoms you get with a cold—coughing, sneezing, fever—are your body’s way of fighting off the virus. It’s often a parent’s first instinct to treat the symptoms, but the cough and fever are therapeutic. Trying to suppress cold symptoms with medications can actually prolong the illness, and no one wants to feel sick longer than they have to. If your child is feeling miserable, by all means, give her Tylenol. If she seems to be feeling fine, there is no need to give her medicine. The key: Listen to your child and manage what she feels, by doing this you will be able to provide her comfort and help her body heal faster.

Colds last about 10 to 14 days. You’ll have two to three days of getting sick, possibly followed by a fever for three or four days, coughing may worsen over the next three or four days, and then you should see improvement over the last two to three days. It’s important to know that this pattern is not true of more serious infections, such as the flu and pneumonia, and I strongly recommend all children get the flu vaccine.

With colds, the plan is to get plenty of fluids, rest and sleep, and nourish your child back to health. Antibiotics don’t help speed recovery from the common cold. If your child seems run down or low on energy, make sure she stays home from school, play dates and sports practices. You can keep your child more comfortable by running a humidifier in her room at night. Dry air from heating can make coughs worse. I also recommend feeding your children plenty of citrus fruits. Vitamin C can help fight the virus, and the actual fruit is better than juice or pills because the fiber in the pulp delivers extra health benefits. And chicken soup, it’s not just an old wives’ tale, it’s actually medicinal. Should the symptoms get worse instead of better, persist longer than 10 days or seem more severe than the typical cold, call your doctor.

We can’t prevent our kids from getting sick, but we are able to reduce the frequency by reminding them to wash their hands well and often, and by teaching them to cough and sneeze into their elbows. Respiratory droplets expelled through coughing, sneezing and talking are how colds spread. Lastly, it turns out mom was right: keep the kids bundled up, if they’ve been exposed to the cold virus, they may be less likely to develop a cold. Simply remember, don’t treat the symptoms, treat your child, and speak with your doctor when you need to.

Editor’s Note: by Elliot Barsh, MD, a pediatrician at Northern Westchester Hospital and the Mount Kisco Medical Group as well as the school physician for the North Salem Central School District.