Is it a cold? Bronchitis? Our guide demystifies four of the most common cold-weather ailments.

By Amy and Justin Pounders Preschool Photo
October 05, 2005
Credit: Anders Wenngren


"My throat hurts!" "I'm hot!" "I can't breathe!"

It's winter, which brings, along with the cold weather, the onset of some dreaded childhood illnesses. It can be hard to figure out exactly which one your child may have, because the most common conditions share many symptoms. We've outlined them all to help you quickly determine the one most likely affecting your child. Please note that this information is not meant to make a definitive diagnosis; you should always consult your pediatrician with questions about your child's health.


Children usually get six to 10 colds every year, primarily during winter. Colds are caused by a virus that infects the nose, sinuses, throat, and airways, and they're often spread through contact with mucus. Symptoms include sneezing, a stuffy and/or runny nose, coughing, scratchy sore throat, and red, watery eyes. Other signs: chills, aches, a mild fever, and swollen lymph glands. Colds can be tough to spot in infants, so look for changes in breathing, eating, and sleeping patterns. Since colds are viral infections, there's no ideal treatment, but fluids and rest, plus decongestants, cough syrups, and antihistamines, can help ease symptoms. See your pediatrician if your child has difficulty breathing or develops a high fever, severe headache, chest pain, or ear pain. Always check with your doctor before giving over-the-counter medications; she can suggest the best choice and proper dosage.

Credit: Anders Wenngren


Between 10% and 20% of the population contracts the flu, or influenza, each year. Children are two to three times more likely to get the illness than healthy adults. The flu is caused by a virus that infects the lungs and airways and can be spread through direct contact or airborne droplets from an infected person's cough or sneeze. Symptoms include a sudden fever, usually above 101°, accompanied by chills and shakes, extreme fatigue, muscle aches, a hacking cough, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment includes rest, fluids, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and aches (ask your doctor which one and how much to give). See your pediatrician if you suspect your infant has the flu; kids under 2 are the most vulnerable to the illness. Also see the doctor if your child's cough worsens, he has trouble breathing or a persistent high fever, or he produces bloody mucus -- all signs of pneumonia. And never give your child cold medicine without checking with your doctor first.

Credit: Anders Wenngren

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More than 25% of those affected by acute bronchitis each year are children; it's most common in kids under 5. The illness, an inflammation of the airways, is usually caused by viruses, bacteria, or allergies. Symptoms include difficulty breathing and a severe cough that may last several weeks. Your child may also develop a slight fever that in severe cases will spike to above 102°. Treatment for bronchitis is rest and fluids, though antibiotics can help if the infection is bacterial. Medication for older children can suppress a dry cough, but if the cough produces phlegm, talk to your pediatrician about giving a syrup with an expectorant to make it easier for your child to bring up the sputum. Check with your doctor to see if you can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and aches, and be sure to use a cool-mist humidifiers or steam vaporizers to help ease breathing. Make an appointment to see your pediatrician so he can make an accurate diagnosis, which can be done only by listening to your child's bronchial tubes.

SinusitisAbout 10% of the colds children get each year develop into sinusitis, an inflammation of the lining of the sinuses that's usually caused by allergies or another infection. Symptoms include nasal congestion and thick nasal discharge, as well as pain, tenderness, swelling, and pressure around the nose. Sinusitis can cause a persistent cough, sore throat, or bad breath. If the infection spreads, it can lead to fever and chills. Treatment is usually a 21-day course of antibiotics. Over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays can be used for up to three days (but check with your pediatrician before administering); after that, they can cause the nasal passages to swell and might actually worsen symptoms. Call your pediatrician to see if an over-the-counter antihistamine, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen are safe for your child. You can safely use a cool-mist humidifiers and steam vaporizers to help make breathing easier, too. See your pediatrician as soon as you suspect sinusitis so she can prescribe antibiotics.

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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2003 issue of Child magazine.

Updated November 2009

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.