FAQ: The Common Cold


The Common Cold: What to do?

Although common, colds can be very distressing for families.  In the United States, adults average about three colds per year, and children have colds about 6-8 times per year! Unfortunately, there’s no cure for the common cold, a viral infection that can’t be treated with antibiotics. Typically, a cold will run its course in a week or two, and children will usually get better on their own, without medication.  Symptoms from colds, such as cough and fever, can be distressing for families. It is helpful to remember that coughs are a normal symptom of a cold and help the body clear the mucus out of the airway and protect the lungs. Fever also helps the body fight off an infection and does not always need to be treated (Fever is defined as a temperature greater than 100.4 F).

What can we expect a typical cold to be like?

Most colds start with a sore throat and a stuffy nose, followed by other symptoms like cough, watery eyes, and a mild fever.  The flu tends to be more severe than a cold, typically with a higher fever, chills, body ache. These symptoms come on suddenly.  

When can my child return to school?

Once your child is fever-free for 24 hours without medicine, she can usually return to school.  If your child returns to school and still has a runny nose, remind your child to throw away all used tissues and to wash her hands with soap.

If my child has a fever, when should they see the doctor?

  • A fever in an infant 3 months or younger
  • A fever lasting more than 2 days
  • Blue lips
  • Difficulty breathing, including wheezing, fast breathing, the ribs showing with each breath or shortness of breath
  • Not eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration (such as decreased urination)
  • Excessive crankiness 
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Persistent ear pain
  • If the cough lasts for more than three weeks
  • If the child’s cold symptoms are getting worse after 1 week of illness

How can I help my child with a cold?

  • Give your child plenty of fluids
  • For infants with a stuffy nose, use saline or saltwater drops/spray to loosen mucus. Then clean the nose with a bulb syringe or other suction tool designed for infants.
  • Place a clean cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room to help with congestion. This can help moisten the air and decrease the drying of the nasal passages and throat.
  • One teaspoon of honey at bedtime may help relieve nighttime cough (don’t give honey to children younger than a year)
  • For a sore throat, have your child gargle with warm salt water--dissolve a teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water. You can also try liquids and foods that are soothing to the throat, such as warm tea, or cold drinks.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen can help reduce fever, aches and pains.

Can I give my child over the counter (OTC) medications for their cough and cold symptoms?

  • The FDA doesn’t recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for cough and cold symptoms in children younger than 2 years old.  Although both over-the-counter and prescription medicines are available to treat cough and cold symptoms, most children will get better on their own.
  •  For older children, some non-prescription medicines can help relieve the symptoms of a cold—but won’t change the natural course of the cold or make it go away faster.  It is advised to use medications only when the symptoms are too uncomfortable or make it difficult for the patient to breathe or sleep.
  • Some cough and cold medicines also have side effects, such as slowed breathing, especially in infants and young children, so it’s important to know when your child needs medication and the correct dosage of the medication.
  • Prescription cough medicines containing codeine or hydrocodone are not indicated for use in children. Caregivers should also read labels on OTC cough and cold products, because some might contain codeine.
  • It can be tempting to give your children pain relievers, decongestants and other medications for a cold. But often it’s best to fight this common illness with rest and care.


Graph describing length of cold symptoms.  Notice how with the average cold, most symptoms have improved after 1 week.  Also worth noting, the average cough can linger beyond 2 weeks!