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What are colds, flu and RSV?
A cold is an infection of the upper respiratory (breathing) tract caused by a virus. Colds usually get better on their own, without taking specific treatment like antibiotics.
Influenza, or 'the flu', is a viral infection that can cause symptoms similar to the common cold — but can also cause serious complications for some babies and young children.
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a very common virus that causes respiratory infections in children. It is often the cause of the common cold and bronchiolitis . Anyone can get RSV, and most children have had RSV by the age of 2 years. RSV is very infectious — it spreads easily by coughing and sneezing or coming into contact with surfaces or objects that have droplets from an infected person. RSV is more common in colder months.
Very young children may have had little or no previous contact with the viruses that cause colds and flu, so they will have low resistance to infection. This is why children can get sick more often than adults.
What are the symptoms of colds, flu and RSV?
Depending on the infection, symptoms of a cold can include:
- stuffy or runny nose
- sore throat and sore ears
- red eyes
- swollen lymph glands
Some children will develop a fever. They might feel sick or vomit, not feel like eating, or be more irritable than normal. Symptoms usually last about a week.
Children with influenza may have the symptoms of a cold, as well as:
- muscle aches
- feeling hot and cold
Most of the time, RSV will cause a mild to moderate, cold-like illness. However, it can also cause severe illness, such as:
- bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung)
- pneumonia (infection of the lungs)
Symptoms usually develop about 3 to 5 days after being infected with RSV and can last for up to 10 days.
What causes colds, flu and RSV?
Colds are caused by viruses that cause an infection in the upper respiratory (breathing) tract.
The flu is caused by an infection with a particular Influenza virus. There are two main types of human influenza viruses: A and B.
RSV is a virus that causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages. It is one of the most frequent causes of the common cold.
When should I see a doctor?
Sometimes a child's coughing may be due to asthma rather than a cold. If your child coughs through winter, or their coughing is brought on by exercise, or happens only at night, they may have asthma. See your doctor if you think your child may have asthma.
Seek urgent medical advice if your baby or young child :
- has a high fever (see a doctor straight away for any fever in a baby younger than 3 months)
- is unable or unwilling to feed, eat or drink
- is not passing urine
- is vomiting a lot
- has a bad headache
- has a rash that does not disappear if you press a glass against it
- has decreasing alertness, awareness and activity — or is unusually sleepy.
You should also see your doctor if your child has any breathing problems like:
- a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
- periods of breathlessness (breathing very rapidly) or difficulty breathing
- bluish or very pale skin
You should also see your doctor if there is any worsening of your child's illness.
If at any time your child has trouble breathing, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
How are colds and flu diagnosed?
Colds and flu are usually diagnosed by your doctor asking you about your child's symptoms and examining your child. Sometimes your doctor will take a nose and throat swab to test for influenza.
How can I treat colds and flu in babies and young children?
Young babies with upper respiratory tract infections sniffle a lot and may cough a little. Even if your baby seems to be breathing comfortably, they may have trouble feeding if their nose is blocked. Proper feeding is important to avoid dehydration and weight loss.
Babies with colds and flu need:
- cuddles and reassurance
- smaller, more frequent feeds
- extra sleep
Ask your doctor if your child can take paediatric nasal drops to help them breathe while they feed. Only use medicines made for babies (not an adult formulation), and don't use nasal drops for more than a couple of days without first checking with your doctor.
Like babies, young children with infections also need rest, warmth, nourishing food and plenty of fluids.
You can give older children paracetamol as tablets. Be sure to give them only as recommended on the packaging, and to store them out of the child's reach.
Do not give aspirin to babies or young children, as aspirin may have serious side-effects.
Cough and cold medicines and over the counter products such as nasal sprays should not be given to children except on the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or nurse.
Things to remember:
- Colds and flu should get better in around 7 to 10 days.
- Watch for breathing problems and other infections if your child has a cold or flu.
- Medicines can ease some symptoms but must be used carefully. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse about all medicines for children.
How can I prevent colds and flu?
If your child attends a child care centre, it is a good idea to let the director know that your child has a cold or flu. Centres have guidelines on when and for how long sick children should stay away. This is to minimise the risk of the disease spreading to other children.
If your baby or child has asthma, be extra careful and watchful during bouts of colds or flu, and protect them from passive smoking. Children are more likely to get infections of the airways if someone in the family smokes at home.
Who can get free flu vaccination?
The flu vaccination is free to the following groups of people under the National Immunisation Program:
- children from 6 months to under 5 years
- pregnant women
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- people with certain medical conditions
- people aged 65 and over
Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about getting your free flu vaccination.
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Complications of colds, flus and RSV
Most babies and young children do not develop complications from colds.
Some may develop complications from the flu or RSV. These complications include pneumonia, bronchiolitis and breathing difficulties. Some children may need to go to hospital to be treated with oxygen, fluids and various medicines.
Resources and support
For more information on children and influenza:
- speak to your doctor or pharmacist
- visit the Department of Health and Aged Care to learn more about children and influenza
- information is also available in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Tagalog, Greek, Punjabi, Italian, Hindi, Korean and Vietnamese
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2023