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Cold and cough season sometimes feels like it lasts forever, with many of us sniffling our way into spring for a bonus round of hay fever.
Little noses are particularly prone to colds, as a baby’s immune system is not yet equipped to fight off the 200 or so viruses that can cause the upper respiratory tract infection known as the common cold. In fact, most babies will succumb to more than eight colds during their first year.
Once children enter the germ factories known as daycare and school, they're looking at another two years of being high-risk cold carriers.
What causes colds?
Cold viruses are spread in airborne droplets propelled by the sneeze or cough of someone who’s sick. You can also literally pick up a cold by touching an infected surface and bringing your hands to your mouth, eyes or nose – with their little mitts constantly in their mouths, babies and toddlers are easy targets.
Signs of infection may appear as soon as 10 hours after exposure, but acute symptoms generally set in after two or three days and last for around a week.
How colds affect kids
If your child catches to a cold, their nose and throat will become inflamed and they may experience a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, fever and even vomiting. Add to this body aches, low appetite, fussiness and interrupted sleep, and you have the recipe for one rough week of parenting.
Unlike bacterial infections, which are treatable with antibiotics, a viral infection like a cold has no cure so all you can really do is soothe the symptoms…
1. Rest and relaxation
It may seem like a no-brainer, but a healthy dose of R ’n R is one of the best ways to help a sick child recover from a cold. Battling a virus takes a lot of energy and a strong immune system.
Use a humidifier to keep the air moist in their resting room – this will help loosen congestion and soothe irritated tissue in the nose and throat. Don’t expect a young child to stay in bed all day, just keep them at home in a warm space.
2. Nose-clearing know-how
The first sign of a cold is often a runny nose – and that annoying tap can keep dripping for weeks! Try saltwater nose drops help expel to the fluid faster.
Saline sprays or drops are also helpful for stuffiness and congestion as they can thin mucus and soothe dry nasal passages. A Canadian study found that saline spray also reduces the chance of infection.
For infants, place several drops of saline in each nostril and gently suction out with a bulb syringe. Nurse more often to prevent dehydration and keep their nose and mouth moist. Older children should be fine to use a spray.
Drinking warm liquids such as soup, herbal tea or warmed apple juice can help speed up the movement of mucus through the nose.
Generations of parents have spooned chicken soup into their sick children to nourish and heal, and they are now backed by research that’s discovered chicken soup’s anti-inflammatory and mucus-thinning properties.
3. Extra care for coughs
Camphor and menthol are natural ingredients that can be steamed into the air via a vaporiser or applied to the throat and chest in an ointment. Their strong-smelling vapours can relieve a cough and ease congestion, but should be used with caution on children under two.
Another popular remedy with strong evidence behind it is honey. A 2007 Pennsylvania State University study found that two teaspoons of honey will not only treat a night-time cough, but it's actually more effective than dextromethorphan, the cough suppressant found in many popular cough medications.
While it may cause distress, coughing up mucus actually helps keep lungs clear. A herbal expectorant such as ivy leaf extract – found in cough syrups like Little Coughs – will help to thin and loosen mucus and clear the chest of congestion. Always consult your health care professional before giving to children under two.
4. Sore throat soothers
A blocked nose will cause your child to breathe through their mouth, which makes the throat drier and feel sore. Dissolving ¼ teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and then gargling it will relieve a scratchy throat, but children younger than seven may struggle to gargle properly.
Other remedies including sipping warm liquid, eating ice chips or ice blocks, sucking on lozenges or hard candy (if they are over the age of four) and using pain relief medicine like ibuprofen or paracetemol.
5. Comfort fever & pain
For a high fever (over about 38ºC), body and headaches or painful ears, children’s paracetamol and ibuprofen may be helpful. Aspirin should never be given to a child, especially with a cold, as it may cause a rare brain disease called Reye’s syndrome.
Bring down a child’s fever by removing excess clothes and bathing with lukewarm water (do not use cold water or ice baths). They should be fever-free for at least 24 hours before returning to school or daycare.
If a fever doesn’t reduce with paracetemol or they start vomiting frequently, have difficulty breathing or seem limp and listless, it’s time to consult a doctor.