Colds are caused by viruses. These are much smaller “bugs” than bacteria. It is widely believed before we knew what viruses are, that the illness known as the common cold was caused by exposure to cold weather since that is the time of year that cold and influenza viruses are more active. However cold does not cause a cold or flu but the decreased humidity in the air during the cold time of year allows the cold viruses to be more active. When humidity is high these viruses are less active. Also when it is cold outside people tend to crowd inside making it easier to share the virus.
Children with the virus can cough, sneeze or touch their nose and get some virus on their hands. Then they touch the hand of another person who touches their nose and the virus starts to multiply and a cold develops.
Once the virus gets into the body and grows more and more viruses, symptoms of a cold begin. First there is a runny nose with a clear liquid coming out; later, a thicker, often colored mucus drains. The runny nose is associated with sneezing, low grade fever (usually at night), decreased appetite, maybe a sore throat and a cough.
Information from the American Academy of Pediatric’s site for parents, healthychildren.org , suggest that if a child has a cold without major problems the symptoms should go away slowly after seven to ten days. Older children with a cold usually don’t need to see a doctor unless they look very sick. However if a child is three months or younger, call the pediatrician with the first sign of illness. Colds can quickly become serious problems such as bronchiolitis, croup or pneumonia.
For a child older than three months call the pediatrician if you notice that the opening of the nose (nostril) gets bigger with each breath, the skin above or below the ribs sinking in with each breath or that your child is breathing fast or is having trouble breathing. Call if you notice the lips and nails are blue or the temperature is over 102 degrees. Call is they have ear pain or a cough that last longer than a week or they are too sleepy or cranky.
Unfortunately there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics may be used to fight infections caused by bacteria but they have no effect on viruses. The best treatment is to make your child comfortable, gets plenty of rest and drink extra amounts of liquids.
The best prevention against the common cold is to keep babies under three months away from people with a cold. Children should be taught to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or sneeze into their shoulder and to wash their hands frequently with either soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This can help stop colds and other viruses from spreading.
Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
Also See: UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care