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Health and Wellbeing
A Health and Well-being Wales Partner

It’s rare a child breezes through their early years without catching the occasional cough, cold or tummy bug.

Some children seem to catch everything that’s going around, while others are more resilient to germs and viruses.

A child’s immune system has not been exposed to as many infections as an adult’s, so they are far more likely to succumb to common ailments. Younger children tend to put things in their mouths and play closely together allowing germs to pass easily between them. 

Fortunately, most children with coughs, colds or tummy bugs will be over the worst in a few days and can be looked after at home and treated with over-the-counter medicines (always check with the pharmacist that the medication is suitable for the age of the child).

Colds

Colds are caused by viruses and are more widespread during the winter months. Colds come on gradually, are at their worst for the first few days and usually last about 7-10 days (and typically 10-14 days in children under five).

NHS Direct Wales lists the common symptoms as:

  • sore throat
  • blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • hoarse voice
  • being generally unwell.

There is no cure for the common cold; however, you can help your child feel more comfortable by encouraging them to rest, drink plenty and eat healthily. Decongestant sprays will help relieve a blocked nose.

In some instances, what first appears to be a cold – a blocked nose, sneezing or watery eyes – can actually be an allergy, particularly if the seasons are changing, e.g. spring.

Cold or flu?

Flu comes on far more suddenly than the common cold. A child might complain of a headache and aching muscles, and might be shivering despite running a high fever.

Unlike the cold, flu can lead to complications, particularly in very young children and the flu vaccine (via a nasal spray) is recommended for children from six months old in certain risk groups.

All children between 2-8 years old are currently (winter 2017/18) being offered nasal spray flu vaccine routinely, either at school or at your GP surgery.

Coughs

Children cough for many reasons; however, coughing is usually a sign that their body is trying to rid itself of mucus, an infection or irritating substances.

Coughs often linger after colds or flu, and can be worse at night.

A persistent cough can be an indication of rhinitis or a sinus infection, while a wheezing cough can be a sign of asthma.

Croup commonly affects children under three years. It is caused by virus and the cough sounds like a seal bark. Croup usually clears up after two days but can last up to two weeks. It is usually worse at night.

Whooping cough is most common among infants, although older children can catch it. It is potentially a very dangerous infection, particularly for babies under six months, half of whom will need treatment in hospital.

If a young child suddenly starts coughing and they are not ill, it could be a sign that they are choking.

Tummy bugs

Most tummy bugs in children are not serious and only last a day or two. The most common cause of diarrhoea and vomiting in young children is gastroenteritis. While the symptoms are unpleasant, your child will usually start to feel better within a few days.

Persistent vomiting can be the sign of something more serious, e.g. appendicitis or meningitis.

When to contact a doctor

Most coughs, colds and tummy bugs run their course and the child is soon well again. Occasionally, however, you might sense something is seriously wrong.

When should I worry? explains when a child’s symptoms may indicate something more serious.

Treating illnesses, infections and injuries is another useful guide for parents and carers.

If in doubt, trust your instincts and get medical help as soon as possible. 

Last updated: 28/02/2018