A parent blowing nose of small sick daughter indoors at home

What is the common cold?

The common cold, usually harmless, is a viral infection of your nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). Many types of viruses can cause a common cold. Healthy adults can expect to have two or three colds each year. Infants and young children may have even more frequent colds. A cold usually lasts for 4 to 7 days.


Symptoms in children

A child with a cold may have a high fever and not feel like eating or playing. More often, children aren’t very sick and have only a cough, runny nose and sneezing. Once in a while, a cold can lead to problems such as ear infections or pneumonia.

As a cold gets better, it is normal to have a runny nose. At first, the mucus is clear. After a few days, the body’s immune cells fight back, and the mucus changes to white, yellow, or green. This is normal and does not mean the child is infected with bacteria.

How the common cold is spread

When a child with cold coughs or sneezes, or spits, the virus can spread to a metre through the air to other people. Cold viruses can be in the mucus or saliva; kids can spread it by touching each other or objects, such as toys or tables.

Cold viruses can live on objects like toys or tables for hours. If kids have the virus on their hands and then touch an object, other children can get it by touching the same object and putting their hands into their eyes, mouths or noses.

Good hand-washing practices are the best way to reduce the spread of cold viruses. They are vital during cold and influenza season.


What to do if your child has a cold

At home

  • Wash your child’s and your own hands after you wipe your child’s nose. Wash your hands often and always before preparing or eating food.
  • Ensure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids to drink.
  • Do not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to a child under three years of age unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Use saline nose drops (a weak salt water solution) to soften the mucus in the nose and help your child breathe better. Do not use nose drops that contain drugs. Use a bulb syringe to clear mucus from the nose.

When To Call Your Doctor or 811

More serious infections can start as a cold. Call your doctor if your child has any of these signs:

  • earache
  • a fever of 38.5°C or higher OR a fever and is less than six months of age
  • has a fever for more than 72 hours 
  • rash
  • very sleepy, listless or does not respond
  • very cranky, fussy or cries more than usual
  • fast breathing or has trouble breathing
  • a cough that won’t go away
  • has any other signs of illness that concern you

Children with colds may go to the child care centre or school if they feel well enough to take part in activities.

More on this topic

How infections are spread

Cover your cough and sneeze