Allergies & Anaphylaxis – pre-school
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Dr Anna Maw
Consultant pediatrician at Cambridge University NHS Trust in the UK. A child doctor specializing in brain development and neurology. She has three children.
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Toddler care & health

Children's coughs and colds

Parents often moan that their children seem to pick up absolutely every single cough and cold that's going around. This is actually partly true. Children haven't yet built up immunity to cold and cough viruses so they get lots of upper respiratory tract viral infections.
In Short
Over the first six years of life, children build their immunity - and become better able to fight off coughs and colds.

Coughs and colds are a normal part of growing up but it's vital you know the symptoms of severe respiratory distress.

How can I soothe my child’s cough or cold?

If your child has a mild cough or cold you can soothe them by:

  • Increasing fluid intake.
  • If the child has a fever or is in discomfort, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help – always follow the instructions carefully so you don’t overdose.
  • Don’t give painkillers too readily as fever is an important part of your child’s immune system trying to kill the infection that is causing the cough or cold.
  • If your child is very snotty and bunged up you can buy safe chest rubs and bath products that contain plant oils such as eucalyptus that can help to breathe more easily.

Do not use adult products. You can also buy a child’s nose suction device which helps to clear their nose if they are struggling to breathe through their nose.

Make sure everyone in the family to wash their hands with soap and dry them properly so the germs won’t spread.

What do I do if my child has a cough

A cough is usually a normal part of the process of a cold. Mucus trickles down your child’s throat and coughing is a natural reflex to try to clear it away.

However, children are much less efficient at getting the oxygen they need and prolonged bouts of coughing will exhaust them – this can be a medical emergency so if a cough seems bad, lasts more than a few seconds or a cough itself, has lasted a long time, then do go and see the doctor urgently. Watch the video for signs of respiratory distress such as belly breathing, wheezing and a suck above the collar bone – if you see any of these signs this may be a medical emergency and you need to seek urgent medical help. If the skin around their mouth is white or blue call an ambulance.

What do I do if my child has a sore throat?

Sore throats are usually due to a viral infection and start a few days before the cold emerges. If you think your child is in pain you can use Paracetamol or Ibuprofen in moderation to ease the discomfort – but always follow the instructions precisely to avoid over-dosing. Most sore throats will clear up on their own – but if they last longer than about 4 days, or your child also has a temperature, or is unable to swallow fluids, go and see your doctor.

Propping them upright in bed can help.


Croup is caused by a viral infection and sounds like a seal bark cough due to your child’s larynx and throat being inflamed. Take your child to the doctor if you suspect croup as they may be struggling to get adequate oxygen if the coughing is prolonged and the infection is bad. To help soothe the croup at home you will probably be up at night to soothe and comfort them, offer lots of extra drinks and you can give children’s painkillers such as Calpol to ease the pain. Don’t exceed the stated dose. Do not medicate with adult products or cough suppressants in your medical cabinet as they will not be safe.

Again if you see the following signs call an ambulance for your child:

  • Breathing difficulties.
  • A cough getting increasingly loud and rasping.
  • Lethargy or undue sleepiness.
  • The blue or whitish skin around his lips and face (this may be harder to spot in dark skinned children so don’t wait for this sign).
  • Sucking in around the neck and ribcage as shown in the video.

The hospital can give oxygen and steroid puffs to help your baby to breathe and open their airways.

Sometimes croup can lead to a secondary, later bacterial infection, e.g. pneumonia. If after your child has had croup they continue to seem poorly with a fever over 39 degrees celsius with a cough, paler skin, and a rapid pulse call an ambulance. Children can get ill very quickly so do not be embarrassed if your instinct says that they aren’t getting better or have taken a turn for the worst.

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.