There’s some truth to the “catch cold” notion.  Years ago a group of volunteers (probably hungry college students) allowed themselves to be inoculated with a strain of rhinovirus, the group of viruses responsible for the majority of colds worldwide.  Half of them were administered the virus (it was squirted into their noses) in comfortable surroundings, while the other half were kept in a cold, wet, and otherwise miserable environment.  The cold, wet volunteers developed symptoms more frequently than the comfortable ones, suggesting that the environment compromised their defenses.

There are other important factors that make winter a high-risk time for colds.  We are closer to one another for longer periods of time each day.  The inside humidity is usually low, drying out our skin, our eyes, and our upper airways, making it easier for the viruses to penetrate our natural defenses.

Prevention measures can significantly reduce the risk of colds.  Frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizers are the most important measures you can take.  As children get older, they can be taught to cough or sneeze into their sleeves when around others. Babies in the first three months of life should be kept away from crowded places during cold season.  After this age, their bodies are better able to manage colds.  

Treating a Child’s Cold Symptoms

The term “common cold” refers to a group of symptoms we all know: cough, fever, congestion, runny nose, and scratchy throat.

If a child develops cold symptoms, home treatment should center on keeping him or her comfortable. Babies have an especially hard time with colds.  They breathe through their noses reflexively rather than switching naturally to their mouths as older children do.  

Decongestants are generally unsafe for babies. The best way to keep their noses clear is to put saline nose drops into their noses, wait a few moments, then suction each nostril with a nasal suction bulb. This is especially important just before nursing or bottle feeding and sleep. Babies do not like this, but they feel much better afterwards.  

Tylenol and Motrin will help relieve the discomfort.  Even in children over the age of 2, decongestants and cough medicines are of marginal benefit.  In children over the age of 1 year, honey mixed in warm water has been proven to reduce cough. In older children, mint tea sweetened with honey is often comforting.  Children over the age of 6 can safely take OTC decongestants.  Antihistamines are of marginal benefit, but may help children sleep.  

When to Seek Advice

Signs of complications of a cold include fever later in the course of the illness. Call your doctor if your child seems to be getting worse rather than gradually improving.  Infants are at special risk with respiratory infections.  If your infant seems to have difficulty breathing or breathing seems to take a great deal of effort, see your pediatrician or pediatric nurse practitioner.