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Colds and flu in babies and children

6-minute read

Colds and flu symptoms can be very similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. Even if your symptoms are mild, get tested for COVID-19 immediately — use the colds and flu Symptom Checker if you're not sure what to do. You can also learn more here about COVID-19 and parenting.

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. It is useful to know that children can get sick much more quickly than adults.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Depending on the infection, symptoms of a cold include:

  • stuffy or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat and ears
  • cough
  • headache
  • 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.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is an illness caused by a virus. It is similar to a cold, but it can cause serious complications.

Children with influenza may have the symptoms of a cold as well as muscle aches, shivering, and feeling hot and cold.

When should I see a doctor?

Most colds run their course and get better on their own. However, very occasionally children may develop complications such as an ear infection, laryngitis or croup, bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

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.

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 less than 3 months)
  • a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • wheezing
  • periods of breathlessness (breathing very rapidly) or difficulty breathing
  • bluish or very pale skin
  • inability or unwillingness to feed
  • drowsiness in your baby
  • is not drinking
  • is not passing urine
  • is vomiting a lot
  • has a bad headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • a rash that does not disappear if you hold a glass against it
  • decreasing alertness, awareness and activity
  • any worsening of the illness or increased distress

How do you treat colds and flu in babies?

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 noses are blocked. Proper feeding is important to avoid dehydration and loss of weight.

Babies with colds and flu need:

  • cuddles and reassurance
  • smaller, more frequent feeds — paediatric (but never adult) nasal drops may help with breathing while your child feeds, but drops should never be used for more than a couple of days without consulting your doctor
  • extra sleep

Babies can be given paracetamol or ibuprofen in liquid form to relieve uncomfortable symptoms such as pain. Make sure to read the label for the recommended dose.

How do you treat colds and flu in young children?

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 use them only as recommended 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 a week to 10 days.
  • Watch for breathing problems and other infections if your child has a cold or flu.
  • Medication can ease some symptoms, but must be used carefully. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse about all medicines for children.

How do you prevent colds and flu?

If your child attends a child care centre, it is a good idea to let the director know. Centres have guidelines on when and for how long sick children should stay away 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. Consider immunising them and yourselves against influenza. Children are more likely to get infections of the airways if someone in the family smokes at home.

What is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a very common virus that causes respiratory and breathing 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. RSV is very infectious. It is spread by coughing and sneezing, or coming into contact with surfaces or objects that have been contaminated with droplets from an infected person. It is more common in colder months.

Symptoms usually develop about 3 to 5 days after being infected and can last for up to 10 days.

Most of the time, RSV will cause a mild to moderate, cold-like illness, including some or all of the following symptoms:

  • runny nose
  • fever
  • headache
  • coughing
  • wheezing

However, it can also cause severe illness, such as:

RSV can usually be treated at home, with small, but frequent, amounts of water (or breastmilk or formula for babies under 6 months) and plenty of rest. Paracetamol and ibuprofen can be given to relieve pain and fever, as directed.

You should take your child to see a doctor if they:

  • have a high temperature
  • have a cough that gets worse
  • have a stuffy nose that makes it difficult to feed
  • are dehydrated
  • are a baby and are refusing to be breast or bottle fed, and are irritable

If at any time your child has difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the hospital’s emergency department.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021


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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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