The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, caused by one of the many contagious viruses that intrude into the nose, throat, sinuses, or ears. The virus travels either from hand to mouth and nose, or through the air on minute droplets carrying infected secretions from one sneezing, wheezing, coughing child to another. On arrival, the virus settles in and multiplies, causing a multiplicity of problems.
Because your child's immune system is in the process of developing, it is not unusual for a child to seem to catch a cold week after week. As your child grows, her immune defenses evolve from an uncoordinated series of safeguards to an intricate set of responses designed to defend the body against foreign substances. In the meantime, boosting your child's immune system with diet and herbs can lessen the frequency of illness.
Doctors often say that children under six years of age have an average of seven colds a year, and older children tend to have an average of four or five colds a year. Some experts say these figures underestimate the incidence of colds in children, however. Your child can catch a cold at any time of the year, but most colds occur during the winter months, from October through February.
The well-known symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, headache, sore throat, coughing, loss of appetite, watery or burning eyes, ear congestion or infection, low-grade fever, and aching muscles and joints. When your child has a cold, she may suffer one, some, or all of these annoying symptoms.
As the cold virus multiplies in the body, the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract swell. Mucus production increases. The swelling causes the air passages to narrow, making breathing difficult. The sinuses become congested. The nose runs. Sneezing, a sense of fullness or achiness in the head, and tearing or burning eyes are all part of the process.
The initial phase of a cold, with nasal congestion, low-grade fever, and cough, usually lasts for two to five days. At the most contagious phase of a cold, the nasal secretions are thin, watery mucus that is almost entirely composed of viral discharge. When the secretions turn thick and yellowish or greenish, that means the discharge is full of dead white blood (immune system) cells, dead viral particles, and dead bacteria. This is a sign of healing and the least contagious stage of a cold.
From start to finish, a common cold, if uncomplicated, lasts about five to ten days. Because there are so many different viruses that cause cold symptoms, a child who is sick for more than fourteen days in a row has probably contracted a series of viruses. While your child's immature immune system is busy fighting the first virus, another can settle in more easily. If your child's temperature goes above approximately 102°F, it is likely that she is suffering from a flu, not a cold. A child with the flu is also likely to feel worse all over than a child with a cold. (See Influenza.)
As we all know, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, and therefore useless in treating colds. Unless your child develops another infection, like an ear or sinus infection, in addition to her cold, antibiotics are not given. In fact, a virus will have more room to multiply if an antibiotic destroys the bacteria normally present in the respiratory tract, so antibiotics can actually inhibit the body in its fight against the common cold.
When to call a doctor about a cold
If your child has a chronic stuffy nose with thick discharge, you should see your physician. A thick, greenish nasal discharge during the final stage of a cold indicates heating, but if it doesn't go away, it may be a sign of a chronic infection, such as a sinus infection.
If your child's fever persists, or if it returns after three days, she may have developed a bacterial infection, such as an ear or sinus infection. By themselves, colds do not usually cause significant fever.
If your child's cold does not clear up within a week, if the symptoms get worse, or if your child develops a rash or a honking cough, she may have a different viral illness. The early symptoms of many viral diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, often resemble those of the common cold.
If at any time your child shows signs of respiratory distress, such as rapid breathing, gasping, wheezing, nasal flaring, or a pale or bluish skin color, or if your child develops a high fever or unusual lethargy, she may be coming down with a more serious infection, such as pneumonia. A child who develops pneumonia needs medical attention.