Tis the Season for the Common Cold

By Dr. Shannon Steppler Yonts

Cold season is upon us, whether we want it to or not. A cold, especially during the holidays, is an unwelcome guest at any festive gathering. To help prepare your children for the usual bout of colds and other illnesses as the seasons change, Dr. Shannon Yonts, Pediatrician at The Children’s Clinic and St. Vincent Physicians Network in Billings, MT answers common cold (and germ) questions.

What causes the “common cold”?

The “common cold” is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. There are a variety of viruses that can cause “a cold”. Rhinovirus, which has over 100 different types, is thought to be responsible for about half of colds in children and adults. Common cold symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, cough, fever, headache, sneezing, and fatigue. Infants and children are affected more often than adults. Children younger than age 6 have an average of six to eight colds per year. Symptoms also tend to last longer in infants and children, with symptoms lasting around 14 days.

How is a cold spread?

Most viruses that cause colds are thought to be spread by a person touching infectious secretions that came from someone’s mouth or nose and then touching their own nose, eyes, or mouth. The viruses can also be spread by inhalation of droplets from coughing.

What are complications of a cold?

While most colds resolve without complications, there are a few things to keep in mind. An ear infection can occur after a cold. The risk of ear infections is greatest in children age 6 months to 11 months. An ear infection may be indicated by ear pain or the new-onset of a fever after the first few days of cold symptoms.

In children who have asthma, a cold may trigger an asthma exacerbation or attack.

Bacterial sinus infections can also develop after a cold. This may be indicated by persistent nasal symptoms without improvement after 10-14 days. Sinus infections can also be indicated by severe symptoms, such as high fever and pus-like nasal discharge.

Bacterial pneumonia is uncommon after a cold. It can be indicated by new-onset of a fever after a few days of having a cold, worsening cough, or difficulty breathing.

Do antibiotics work to help treat the “common cold”?

No. There is no role for antibiotics in the treatment of the common cold. Antibiotics will not prevent secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia. Also, there can be significant side effects from antibiotics. Side effects can include allergic reactions, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. In addition, the use of antibiotics when not necessary can contribute to increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Bacterial resistance means that antibiotics that were previously used to treat infections, will no longer work. There is increasing concern that soon commonly used antibiotics will no longer be effective against bacterial infections.

When are antibiotics indicated for a child?

Antibiotics may be indicated when a child develops a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection, pneumonia, or sinus infection. If you are concerned that your child may have a bacterial infection, your child should be seen by his or her physician.

What treatments are available for the common cold?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics may be used for bacterial infections, but they have no effect on the viruses that cause colds. The best thing you can do is to try to make your child comfortable. Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and encourage him or her to drink fluids. If your child has a fever, acetaminophen or ibuprofen may make your child feel more comfortable. Keep in mind, ibuprofen should not be used in children less than 6 months old or if you are concerned about dehydration.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be used in children younger than 6 years of age. Studies have shown that they are not effective and can have serious side effects. Also, although coughing may be bothersome, it helps clear mucous from the lower respiratory tract.

Placing a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room, may help keep nasal secretions looser, so they are able to drain. Hot-water vaporizers are no longer recommended, as they can cause burns.

If your infant is having trouble feeding or breathing due to nasal congestion, you can help clear his or her nose by using saline drops and then suctioning with a bulb syringe. Don’t use drops that contain medication, unless directed by a physician.

What about herbal supplements, vitamins, and honey?

There is no conclusive evidence that vitamin C or Echinacea purpurea prevent children from getting the common cold. Similarly, zinc supplementation has not been proven to decrease the duration or severity of a cold. Zinc nasal products have been associated with loss of sense of smell and are not recommended for children.

However, there may be a role for honey in reducing the cough that may accompany a cold. One study that looked at honey found that when parents gave their children honey before bedtime, they reported a decrease in their child’s cough frequency and severity. Honey should not be given to children less than 1 year of age. In children older than 1 year of age, 0.5 to 1 teaspoon of honey can be given before bedtime.

My child had an ear infection and feels much better after 3 days of antibiotics, can he or she stop taking it?No. It is important to complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if your child feels better. If your child stops taking the antibiotic too soon, the infection may return. It also may contribute to bacterial resistance, so the antibiotic may not be as effective the next time it is needed.

How can I prevent my child from getting a cold?

The best way to prevent the common cold is to not be in contact with someone who has one. However, this is difficult, especially when children attend day care or school.

Proper hand-washing and trying to avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes are important and practical ways to limit the spread of viruses. To encourage your child to wash their hands for an appropriate amount of time, try teaching your child to sing their ABC’s or Yankee Doodle while washing. Children who have colds can also be instructed to cough into a tissue or their elbow rather than their hands to help prevent the spread of a cold.

Shannon Steppler Yonts was raised near Culbertson, MT. She completed her undergraduate at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. She then received her medical degree from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2009. She completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at Primary Children's Medical Center through the University of Utah in 2012. She then joined the Children's Clinic in 2012.