The Common Cold

Rhinovirus Infections
More than any other illness, rhinoviruses (rhin means “nose”) are associated with the common cold. Rhinoviruses may also cause some sore throats, ear infections, sinus infections, and to a lesser degree, pneumonia and bronchiolitis (infection of the small breathing passages of the lungs).

The average child has 8 to 10 colds during the first 2 years of her life. If she spends time in child care settings where she’ll be exposed to other children with colds, she may catch even more colds.

Rhinoviruses are spread easily through person-to-person contact. When a child with a rhinovirus infection has a runny nose, nasal secretions get onto her hands and from there onto tables, toys, and other surfaces. Your child might touch the hands or skin of another youngster or toys that have been contaminated by the virus and then touch her own eyes or nose, infecting herself. She might breathe in airborne viruses spread by a sneeze or cough.

Although your child can develop a cold at any time of the year, these infections are most common during autumn and spring.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of the common cold are familiar to everyone. Your child’s cold may start with a watery, runny nose that has a clear discharge. Later, the discharge becomes thicker and is often colored brownish, gray, or greenish. This colored nasal discharge is normal as the child begins to get over the cold.

Children may also develop symptoms such as

  • Sneezing
  • A mild fever (101°F–102°F or 38.3°C–38.9°C)
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Muscle aches
  • A decrease in appetite

In some children, pus will appear on the tonsils, which could be a sign of a streptococcal infection

The incubation period for a rhinovirus infection is usually 2 to 3 days. Symptoms generally persist for 10 to 14 days, sometimes less.

What You Can Do

When your child has a cold, make sure she gets enough rest. She should drink extra fluid if she has fever. If she is uncomfortable, talk to your pediatrician about giving her acetaminophen to reduce her fever. Don’t give her over-the-counter cold remedies or cough medicines without first checking with your doctor. These over-the-counter medicines do not kill the virus and, in most circumstances, do not help with the symptoms.

When to Call Your Pediatrician

If your infant is 3 months or younger and develops cold symptoms, contact your pediatrician. Complications ranging from pneumonia to bronchiolitis are much more likely to develop in very young children.

Older youngsters generally don’t need to be seen by a pediatrician when they have a cold. Nevertheless, contact your doctor if your older youngster has symptoms such as

  • Lips or nails that turn blue
  • Noisy or difficult breathing
  • A persistent cough
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Ear pain, which may indicate an ear infection

How Is the Diagnosis Made?

Colds are typically diagnosed by observing your child’s symptoms. In general, it is impractical to conduct laboratory tests to identify the organism that may be infecting a child with cold symptoms.

Most rhinovirus infections are mild and do not require any specific treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against the common cold and other viral infections.

What Is the Prognosis?

Most colds go away on their own without complications.


Keep an infant younger than 3 months from having close contact with children or adults who have colds.

Make sure your child washes her hands frequently, which will reduce the chances of getting the virus.

Source: Immunizations &Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent’s Guide (Copyright ©American Academy of Pediatrics). The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.


How to Manage Colds and Flu


Make sure your child gets extra rest and fluids. Ask your child’s doctor about treatments for:

Stuffy Nose

  • Use saltwater (saline) nose drops or spray. For infants, use a rubber suction bulb to suck out the extra drops or spray.
  • Put a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer in your child’s room. Clean the machine every day.


  • For children ages 1 to 5 years, try half a teaspoon of honey. Do not give honey to babies under one year—it is not safe.
  • Try one teaspoon of honey for children 6 to 11, and two teaspoons for children 12 or older.
  • Consider cough drops for children 4 and older.


  • Do not give your child aspirin, which has been linked to a rare but serious illness in children.
  • Up to age 6 months, give only acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic).
  • After 6 months, you can give either acetaminophen or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and generic).
  • Ask the doctor for the right medicine and dose for your child’s age and size.

Flu Vaccine

  • Children 6 months or older should get a flu vaccine each year.
  • For younger children, make sure the people around them have the flu vaccine.

Over-the-Counter Cough & Cold Medicines

  • Do not give these to children under age 4.
  • Many cold medicines already have acetaminophen in them, so beware of double dosing.

If Antibiotics Are Prescribed

Make sure children take them as directed, even if they feel better. If antibiotic treatment stops too soon, the infection may get worse or spread in the body. Call the doctor if your child is not getting better with treatment.

This consumer information is part of the Choosing Wisely communications program and has been developed by Consumer Reports in collaboration with AAP and is being provided by with the permission of Consumer Reports.. Last Updated 11/10/2014. Source Copyright © 2012 Consumer Reports. Developed in cooperation with the American Academy of Pediatrics. The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.