If your child's coughing, sneezing, and congestion haven't improved after a week to 10 days, she may have something more serious.
This infection takes hold when a cold virus settles deep in the lungs. Suspect pneumonia if your child develops a new fever after being sick for about a week; if his cough becomes worse; if he complains of chest pain, wheezes, or has any trouble breathing; or if he just seems fussier and not himself. Pneumonia can strike at any age, but babies and kids with lung disorders like asthma are at greater risk for serious complications.
In babies and toddlers, the cold virus can also cause this inflammation of the larynx and trachea. A day or two into your child's cold -- usually just a few hours after you've put him down for the night -- you'll hear what sounds like a seal barking in his bedroom. He may gasp for breath, wheeze, and cry hoarsely between coughs. What to do right away: Turn on a hot shower and sit together in the steamy bathroom, or take your child outside and let him inhale cold air, suggests Neil Schachter, MD, author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu. If your child is still struggling to breathe after 10 to 20 minutes, call the doctor.
If your child has been sniffling for a few days and then suddenly develops a fever and can't sleep at night, think ear infection. "Colds cause general inflammation of the respiratory tract," explains Dr. Petrikin. "That can close off the eustachian tubes, which help drain fluid in the middle ears. When fluid backs up, bacteria can flourish." Ear infections may be treated with acetaminophen as well as antibiotics. Fortunately, as children grow, so do their eustachian tubes; ear infections peak between 6 months and 2 years, but then taper off.
Bacterial infections can also develop in the sinuses when fluid gets trapped there. "Sinus infections usually don't occur until kids are 2 years old and the sinuses are better formed," says Dr. Demmler. Symptoms to watch for: fever, congestion, a cough that lasts longer than 10 to 14 days without any improvement, bad breath, swollen eyelids, or a headache. Your pediatrician may recommend acetaminophen, decongestants, saline drops or spray, and antibiotics.