Sick Days

What you need to know about the coughs, sniffles, and sneezes of winter.

Common Cold

giving baby medicine

'Tis the season for giving and receiving, but the one thing you'd rather your baby not get this holiday season is a respiratory illness. The best defense is to stay clear of people who are coughing and sneezing -- especially if you've got a newborn or preemie. In addition, good hand washing will help your family avoid most infections, says Charles I. Shubin, MD, medical director of the Children's Health Center at Mercy FamilyCare, in Baltimore. Still, as kids play and explore, they'll pick up some germs that will make them sick. Here's how to recognize and remedy what may ail them.

Common Cold

About 100 different viruses (mainly rhinoviruses) cause the minor nose and throat infections that lead to the common cold. Newborns are typically protected by antibodies they get from Mom. But once that immunity wears off, at around 6 months, kids can get as many as 10 colds a year. The silver lining: "Colds help a child develop immune cells that prevent infections later on," says Jay Kolls, MD, chief of pediatric pulmonology at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.


Colds come on slowly, usually with a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, sore throat, swollen glands, and coughs. Babies with a stuffy nose who haven't yet learned to breathe through their mouth may have trouble sleeping and eating. For most kids, colds are no big deal. But for asthmatic children, colds can be more severe and can trigger asthma attacks. Even after a cold has subsided, a cough may last for weeks.


Clean toys and teach older kids to wash their hands and to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, or tell them to bend their arm and sneeze into the crook of their elbow.


There is no cure, so don't pester your pediatrician for antibiotics, which don't kill viruses. And -- sorry, moms -- those infant over-the-counter cough and cold medications you've used in the past aren't available anymore. Those medications contain ingredients such as dextromethorphan (the DM in cough medicines), the decongestant pseudoephedrine, and antihistamines such as diphenhydramine that have been linked in children younger than age 2 with a variety of adverse effects -- including neurological problems, increased blood pressure, heart-rhythm problems, even death. That's why drug manufacturers voluntarily recalled infant cold and cough medicine in October. At that time, the FDA was also considering recommending that medicine with decongestants, cough suppressants, and/or antihistamines not be given to kids younger than age 6.

So do kids with colds have to tough it out? If yours has a fever, is uncomfortable, and is older than 6 months, give her acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower her temperature. (Don't give kids aspirin because it can cause Reye's syndrome, which can lead to brain damage and death.) Drinking fluids can also loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. If your child refuses water, offer ice pops, diluted juice, or the age-old remedy -- chicken soup. You could also use a nasal aspirator on babies younger than 6 months or put saline drops (or use a spray) in an older child's nose. Or try a cool-mist humidifier, which thins mucus. (Clean the humidifier daily to prevent bacteria and mold growth.)

Red Alert

Kids with colds don't usually get high fevers, so if your child has a rectal temperature above 102 degrees F., check with your pediatrician to ensure that she doesn't have another type of infection, such as pneumonia, strep throat, or an ear infection. If your baby is under 3 months old, call your pediatrician at the very first sign of illness because even a mild cold can quickly develop into something more serious in these infants.

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