A “cold” is a virus in which the main symptom is a runny nose. This is the least serious and most common respiratory illness, and is usually viral. Ordinarily the nasal discharge starts clear and watery, gradually thickens, becomes yellow or green for a few days, then dries up. Often this is accompanied by fever, discomfort, sneezing, and a mild cough. Similar symptoms may be caused by nasal allergy. In that case the discharge will usually remain clear and watery, itching and sneezing will be more prominent, and generalized symptoms such as fever will be absent. To manage these symptoms you can:
- Use a cool mist vaporizer (well cleaned regularly with bleach) to help soothe irritated nasal passages and keep secretions loose. Elevating the head of the bed may help some children sleep better as well.
- For infants LESS THAN 4-5 MONTHS, who have difficulty breathing through the mouth and for whom a cold may therefore interfere with feeding, use a bulb syringe to suction the nose clear. This may be done as often as necessary, but is particularly helpful just before feeding. Instilling some saline nose drops prior to suctioning may make this job easier. DO NOT use over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays unless specifically instructed by a physician, as they can be dangerous. (Saline nasal sprays are o.k.)
- In general, studies have NOT shown over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to be very helpful for children. If the nose is really running, consider a pure antihistamine like Benadryl. Especially avoid drugs that have several ingredients because they increase the risk of side effects. Use Tylenol or Motrin for a cold only if your child has a fever, sore throat, or muscle aches. Left over antibiotics should not be given for uncomplicated colds because they have no effect on viruses and may be harmful. Unlike infections caused by bacteria (like a strep infection of the throat,) viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics. They go away on their own as a result of the body’s own defense systems fighting them off.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of liquids and get plenty of rest. Clear liquids are especially helpful in decreasing congestion. If your baby is still breast feeding or on formula, continue his or her regular feedings.
- Consider seeking medical attention if the runny nose continues for more than a week and is persistently green and/or foul smelling for more than 2-3 days, or if other symptoms (pain, cough, fever lasting longer than 3 days, etc.) develop.