Your expert guide to treating a child’s cold

A runny nose, a hacking cough & more congestion than a rush hour motorway? Here’s the lowdown for when your child is bunged up


Uh-oh, it’s cold and flu season. If your child has just started pre-school or school, that means dozens of kids in a confined space and dozens of germs – especially worrying when you’re not there to monitor hand washing and nose wiping! Here’s what you need to know about the petri dish that is your kids’ playground, and our top tips for treating a child’s cold with minimum interruption to their fun!

Hand hygiene is your BFF…

A regular hand-washing regime (after the toilet, before meals, after sneezing and blowing their nose) will help to stop the spread of colds and viruses. Not always simple when your child thinks that tissues and sleeves are interchangeable, but fun soap or tissues decorated with their favorite cartoon character can help them get used to the routine.

…as is a healthy diet

“A range of fruit, veg, dairy, protein and wholegrains should provide all the vitamins children need to help build a strong immune system,” says Boots pharmacist Scot Taylor. If picky eating makes this tricky, “children aged six months to five years can take a daily supplement containing vitamins A, C and D.”

Is it a cold or flu?          

Cold symptoms come on gradually and include a blocked nose, aches, coughs, sneezing, a sore throat and a raised temperature. The symptoms of flu are, yup, similar, but more severe and come on quickly, often with a temperature of 38 degrees or higher. “You should take your child to the GP if their fever lasts longer than five days, if they have any other medical conditions (e.g. diabetes), or a weakened immune system,” says Scot.

How to decide if it’s a duvet day

In short: parental discretion advised. “It’s not necessary to keep a child off with a cold unless they feel extremely poorly,” says Scot However, a fever above 38 degrees may indicate flu, and you should keep them off until 24 hours after the temperature has returned to normal.

Treat them right         

Resting, sleeping and staying hydrated are all-important. “A room humidifier, and saline nasal sprays may help to clear congestion, and a warm bath before bed can also help clear passages,” says Scot Ask your GP or pharmacist’s advice before giving any over-the-counter cold or cough medicine to a child under six, but you can give child-specific paracetamol or ibuprofen (provided they’re not taking any other medicines advised by the GP or pharmacist), which may help with fever and aches. And for the dreaded lingering cough? “Ensure they’re drinking plenty of fluids to keep hydrated and their throat lubricated and try an age-appropriate glycerol cough syrup.”

Bedtime prep can help you all sleep through

“A room plug-in can aid breathing, as can an air humidifier,” says Scot “Use a menthol vapor rub on the pillow or chest to help clear congestion and aid breathing through the night.”

Shouldn’t it be gone by now?

“The average cold lasts up to 10 days,” says Scot But it can range from anything between one and three weeks in total. “If it lasts longer than three weeks, see your GP,” he advises.

The flu vaccination can’t give them the flu           

The nasal spray flu vaccine is offered to children age two and three, and all primary school-age children. “It’s impossible to catch the flu from the child flu vaccine,” reassures Scot “However, as your immune system responds to the vaccine you can sometimes get very mild symptoms such as a temperature and congestion, but these shouldn’t last longer than a couple of days. If they persist, seek medical advice.”

If it seems like they’re ill a lot, that’s normal!

“I've seen children get sick every 6-8 weeks at this age,” says Dr Babak Ashrafi, clinical lead for Service Expansion at Zava, the online GP service. “But as long as they recover in between episodes that’s fine. However, if they have an abnormal response or don't completely recover between bouts, don’t hesitate to get them checked out.”