Cough and cold

Coughs and colds are extremely common in young children. Over the first few years of life, your child might have these every month.

  • Coughing is the body's natural way of clearing infection
  • Most of these are likely to be caused by a virus, which means that antibiotics don’t help. Antibiotics might cause side effects such as rash and diarrhoea, or increase the risk of developing antibiotic resistance.
  • Having green snot or a noisy chest does not mean that your child has an infection needing antibiotics
  • Coughing can wake a child in the night but does not mean the illness is more severe

Related topics: Asthma, Bronchiolitis, Croup, Difficulty breathing

Watch a local GP and health visitor talking about what they would look out for in a child with a cough and cold:

When should you worry?

If your child has any of the following:
  • Breathing very fast or breathing that stops or pauses
  • Makes a grunting noise every time they breathe out
  • A harsh noise as they breathe in (stridor) present all of the time (even when they are not upset)
  • Becomes pale, blue, mottled and/or unusually cold to touch
  • Difficult to wake up, very sleepy or confused
  • Weak, high-pitched, continuous cry or can’t be settled
  • Has a fit (seizure)
  • Is under 3 months old with temperature more than 38°C or under 36°C (unless fever in the 48 hours following vaccinations and no other red or amber features)
  • Has a rash that does not go away with pressure (the ‘Glass Test’)

You need urgent help.

Go to the nearest Hospital Emergency (A&E) Department or phone 999

If your child has any of the following:
  • Working hard to breathe, drawing in of the muscles below the ribs
  • A harsh noise as they breathe in (stridor) only when upset
  • Dry skin, lips or tongue
  • Not had a wee or wet nappy in last 8 hours
  • Poor feeding in babies (less than half of their usual amount)
  • Irritable (Unable to settle them with toys, TV, food or hugs even after their fever has come down)
  • Is 3-6 months old with temperature 39oC or above (unless fever in the 48 hours following vaccinations and no other red or amber features)
  • Temperature of 38oC or above for more than 5 days or shivering with fever(rigors)
  • Temperature less than 36°C in those over 3 months
  • Getting worse or you are worried about them

You need to contact a doctor or nurse today.

Please ring your GP surgery or call NHS 111 - dial 111

If symptoms persist for 4 hours or more and you have not been able to speak to either a member of staff from your GP practice or to NHS 111 staff, recheck that your child has not developed any red features.

If none of the above features are present
  • Watch them closely for any change and look out for any red or amber symptoms
  • Additional advice is also available for families for help cope with crying in otherwise well babies
  • If your child has a long term condition or disability and you are worried please contact your regular team or follow any plans that they have given you.

Self care

Continue providing your child’s care at home. If you are still concerned about your child, speak to your health visitor, local pharmacist or call NHS 111– dial 111

Children and young people who are unwell and have a high temperature should stay at home. They can go back to school, college or childcare when they no longer have a high temperature, and they are well enough to attend.

What should you do?

  • Keep your child well hydrated by offering them lots to drink
  • Most children with coughs and colds do not require treatment with antibiotics.
  • If your child seems to be in pain or discomfort, you can give your child Paracetamol or Ibuprofen, following the instructions on the container.
  • Do not give cough syrup. It is not recommended for children under 6 years. It can make children sleepy and does not help.
  • Try using saline nose drops or spray if your baby has a blocked nose
  • For children over 1 year, a spoon of honey (perhaps in a warm drink) half an hour before bed may help them to wake less often in the night
  • For children over 2 years, vapour rubs (containing camphor, menthol and/or eucalyptus) may help children sleep better
  • How long will your child's symptoms last?
  • Coughs and colds can continue for weeks before they get better.
  • Over the winter, children are likely to get one viral infection after another, which can make you think that they are never well. Things will get better in the summer months.
  • Having a cough for 2 or 3 weeks does not mean that your child needs antibiotics
  • Children under 2 years of age with breathing difficulty may have bronchiolitis. This is a common condition that usually starts as a runny nose and cough, but their breathing may get worse over the next 2-3 days
  • If your child has noisy breathing, they might have croup. Click here for more information
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Thanks to Dr Oliver van Hecke for permission to use this infographic. They were developed as part of a study funded by a National Institute for Health and Care Research School for Primary Care Research grant (reference number: 439)

How long will your child's symptoms last?

  • Coughs and colds can continue for weeks before they get better.
  • Over the winter, children are likely to get one viral infection after another, which can make you think that they are never well. Things will get better in the summer months.
  • Having a cough for 2 or 3 weeks does not mean that your child needs antibiotics
  • Children under 2 years of age with breathing difficulty may have bronchiolitis. This is a common condition that usually starts as a runny nose and cough, but their breathing may get worse over the next 2-3 days. Click here for more information.
  • If your child has noisy breathing, they might have croup. Click here for more information
  • The charts below show how long coughs and colds last in children. The faces represent 10 children who have seen their GP with a cough or cold. Green faces are those children who have recovered within that time period.
coughcold.png

The diagrams above are taken from www.whenshouldiworry.com

Where should you seek help?

Self Care

For wear and tear, minor trips and everything in between.

Self-care

You can treat your child's very minor illnesses and injuries at home.

Some illnesses can be treated in your own home with support and advice from the services listed when required, using the recommended medicines and getting plenty of rest.

Sound advice

Children can recover from illness quickly but also can become more poorly quickly; it is important to seek further advice if a child's condition gets worse.

For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?

Local Pharmacist

Pharmacists are experts in many aspects of healthcare and can offer advice on a wide range of long-term conditions and common illnesses such as coughs, colds and stomach upsets. You don’t need an appointment and many have private consultation areas, so they are a good first port of call. Your pharmacist will say if you need further medical attention.

Sound advice

  1. Visit a pharmacy if your child is ill, but does not need to see a GP.
  2. Remember that if your child's condition gets worse, you should seek further medical advice immediately.
  3. Help your child to understand - watch this video with them about going to the pharmacy.

For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?

Health Visitors

Health visitors are nurses or midwives who are passionate about promoting healthy lifestyles and preventing illness through the delivery of the Healthy Child Programme. They work with you through your pregnancy up until your child is ready to start school.

Health Visitors can also make referrals for you to other health professionals for example hearing or vision concerns or to the Community Paediatricians or to the child and adolescent mental health services.

Contact them by phoning your Health Visitor Team or local Children’s Centre.

Sound advice

Health visitors also provide advice, support and guidance in caring for your child, including:

  • Breastfeeding, weaning and healthy eating
  • Exercise, hygiene and safety
  • Your child’s growth and development
  • Emotional health and wellbeing, including postnatal depression
  • Safety in the home
  • Stopping smoking
  • Contraception and sexual health
  • Sleep and behaviour management (including temper tantrums!)
  • Toilet training
  • Minor illnesses

For more information watch the video: What does a health visitor do?

School Nurses

School nurses care for children and young people, aged 5-19, and their families, to ensure their health needs are supported within their school and community. They work closely with education staff and other agencies to support parents, carers and the children and young people, with physical and/or emotional health needs.

Contacting the School Nurse

Primary and secondary schools have an allocated school nurse – telephone your child’s school to ask for the contact details of your named school nurse.

There is also a specialist nurse who works with families who choose to educate their children at home.

Sound Advice

Before your child starts school your health visitor will meet with the school nursing team to transfer their care to the school nursing service. The school nursing team consists of a school nursing lead, specialist public health practitioners and school health staff nurses.

They all have a role in preventing disease and promoting health and wellbeing, by:-

  • encouraging healthier lifestyles
  • offering immunisations
  • giving information, advice and support to children, young people and their families
  • supporting children with complex health needs

Each member of the team has links with many other professionals who also work with children including community paediatricians, child and adolescent mental health teams, health visitors and speech and language therapists. The school health nursing service also forms part of the multi-agency services for children, young people and families where there are child protection or safeguarding issues.

GP (General Practitioner)

GPs assess, treat and manage a whole range of health problems. They also provide health education, give vaccinations and carry out simple surgical procedures. Your GP will arrange a referral to a hospital specialist should you need it.

Sound advice

You have a choice of service:

  1. Doctors/GPs can treat many illnesses that do not warrant a visit to A&E.
  2. Help your child to understand – watch this video with them about visiting the GP or going to a walk in centre

For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?

NHS 111

If you’re not sure which NHS service you need, call 111. An adviser will ask you questions to assess your symptoms and then give you the advice you need, or direct you straightaway to the best service for you in your area.

Sound advice

Use NHS 111 if you are unsure what to do next, have any questions about a condition or treatment or require information about local health services.

For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?

Accident and Emergency

A&E departments provide vital care for life-threatening emergencies, such as loss of consciousness, suspected heart attacks, breathing difficulties, or severe bleeding that cannot be stopped. If you’re not sure it’s an emergency, call 111 for advice.

Sound advice

  1. Many visits to A&E and calls to 999 could be resolved by any other NHS services.
  2. If your child's condition is not critical, choose another service to get them the best possible treatment.
  3. Help your child to understand – watch this video with them about going to A&E or riding in an ambulance
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