Advancing Children's Health

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Combat colds: Simple steps to stop the spread of infection & relieve symptoms

Published by , on Mar 6, 2017

Despite the warm weather we’ve had recently, it’s still cold and flu season. While a child can catch a cold any time of the year, many consider the winter months to be a peak time for colds. Children typically spend more time indoors during colder months which means they have many more opportunities for passing around germs. More than 200 viruses are known to cause the common cold and these infections spread through the air and through close personal contact. Teaching children proper hand washing is key to reducing germs. Here’s more about this technique and other steps you can take to limit the spread of infection and help relieve cold symptoms.

Tiffany Kimbrough; CHoR PollardHand washing and other techniques that help combat the spread of germs are important for children – and parents too – from day one. It is normal for a child to have 8-10 colds in their first year of life, especially if attending day care.

-Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, general pediatrician and mom


Teaching hand washing

The time you spend teaching children how to wash their hands can help reduce the transmission of an infection. Teach proper hand washing techniques and reinforce these lessons, especially with younger children who are still developing these habits:


  • Use running water, lather with soap and rub for 15-20 seconds. It can help to have the child sing the “Happy Birthday” song two times, as that equals 15-20 seconds.

  • Rinse all of the soap off and dry hands with paper towels.

  • Turn off the water with the towel covering your hands.


When a child does it right, let them hear it from you so they’ll continue these good habits. Make a big deal about it with hugs, cheers and a “thumbs up.”

Use hand sanitizer properly

Sanitizer can be used when it is time to clean hands, but only when hands are not visibly dirty. With kids, some likely scenarios for using sanitizer include: before eating, after coming home from school or the store, when entering or leaving a doctor’s office or hospital, and after a playdate. Teach your children to ALWAYS wash with soap and water when their hands are visibly dirty/soiled and after using the bathroom or touching pets/animals.


  • Sanitizer should be dispensed by an adult or with an adult’s supervision.

  • The child should rub the sanitizer over the front and back of their hands and continue rubbing until it dries.


Disinfect and protect your home


  • When cleaning to sanitize (remove germs, remove bacteria, etc.), be sure to read the label on your cleaning product. You will find a “kill time” on the label that tells you how long to leave the cleaner on to sanitize. If you’re wiping down counters in your kitchen, for example, do not immediately wipe and dry the countertop as the disinfectant needs time to kill germs on the surface.

  • Clean the most high-risk areas regularly. Kitchen surfaces and tables are a must, as these are places where food is eaten and prepared. Any germs left in these areas get a free ride to our bodies on our foods.

  • Bathrooms are also essential. Be sure to clean faucet and toilet handles and door and cabinet knobs. Consider adding a paper towel roll in your most-used bathrooms rather than hanging a hand towel that must be washed frequently. Bath toys that make it into your child’s mouth and other “mouthed” toys can be washed in the top rack of your dishwasher. When there has been an illness that includes a sore throat, remember to purchase a new toothbrush.

  • All toys should be regularly disinfected and stuffed animals, blankets and bedding regularly laundered.

  • Cell phones, tablets and other electronic devices should be cleaned regularly to reduce germs. Be sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s information about how to disinfect electronic devices. Cleaning these can be very tricky and the recommended cleaning/disinfecting methods vary based on the type of device.


Cough and sneeze control

Remind your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow in order to reduce spread of germs. Coughing into your hand and then touching a surface is a sure-fire way to spread germs quickly.

Know what you’re battling

A sneeze or cough may transfer a virus from one person to another through the air. A virus can also spread through contact with someone who is infected. It’s easy for children to spread infection because they touch their own noses, mouths, etc., then touch others or objects such as toys. Most individuals who have a cold are contagious (more likely to spread infection) two to four days after symptoms arise and up to about three weeks thereafter.

Viruses can infiltrate the protective lining of the nose and throat. This triggers the immune system to react, resulting in a sore throat, headache and breathing difficulty. Other risk factors such as dry air (both indoors and outdoors) and cigarette smoke (first and secondhand) can help trigger a cold by acting on the immune system.

Asian child lying in bed and holding tissue up to her runny noseRecognize the signs

Cold symptoms start one to three days after contact with the cold virus. During a typical cold with no complications, symptoms usually last about one week but sometimes may last up to two weeks. Symptoms of a cold may resemble other conditions or medical problems so it’s important to always consult your child’s physician for a diagnosis. It’s also important to note that in young babies, colds can quickly develop into other conditions like pneumonia.

Cold symptoms:


  • Runny nose (initially clear progressing to thicker, at times colored)

  • Cough, sneezing

  • Mild fever (101-102o Fahrenheit)

  • Decreased appetite

  • Irritability

  • Sore throat, difficulty swallowing

  • Slightly swollen glands


Note: If there is pus on tonsils, especially in children over age 3, it may be a strep throat infection. (Again, always consult your child’s doctor for a diagnosis.)

The flu and the common cold have similar symptoms and it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. Your health care provider can give you/your loved one a test within the first few days of the illness to determine whether or not it’s the flu. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, tiredness and cough are more common and intense with the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. For more on the flu, visit Flu season is in full swing: Protect your loved ones.

Providing relief for symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, but are not effective against viruses that cause colds. Certain remedies can help lessen and relieve cold symptoms, but they will not help the cold resolve sooner. Options for relieving cold symptoms include:

Saline (salt water) nose drops – If the child is unable to blow his or her nose, follow the drops with suction from a bulb syringe every few hours as needed. (Never use saline nose drops containing medicine.)

Cool mist humidifier – These devices are particularly helpful for croup-like illnesses with a barking cough. The cool air helps to decrease swelling in the throat and provide some symptom relief. (Hot water vaporizers are not recommended due to potential for serious scalds/burns.)

Medication – If a child has a fever and is very uncomfortable, give a single-ingredient medication, either acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as recommended by child’s doctor. Ibuprofen is not approved for babies less than 6 months of age. Do not give ibuprofen to those who are dehydrated or vomiting. Follow the dosing chart and time intervals and always check to be sure child still has a fever before giving medication. Also, be aware that continued use of these medications can cover up worsening symptoms or hide an underlying condition.

Most over-the-counter cough and cold relief medications are not recommended for children under 8 years of age as they have been found to be ineffective and associated with side effects. If your child is over 1 year of age, you can try plain honey to help with relief of cough. Ask your doctor before trying other remedies.

Food/fluids – Make sure your child eats when hungry and drinks plenty of fluids. Colds, especially with fevers, will lead your little one to becoming dehydrated more quickly. Encourage small frequent sips if your child’s appetite is decreased.

Contributors:

Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, general pediatrician
Lark Bailey, RN

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