Coughs and colds are extremely common in young children. Over the first year of life, your child is likely to have up to 8 of these episodes.
- Coughing is the body’s natural way of clearing infection.
- Most of these are likely to be caused by a virus, which means that antibiotics are of no benefit (and may actually result in side effects such as rash and diarrhoea, as well as increasing the risk of them developing antibiotic resistance).
- Having green snot or a noisy chest does not mean that your child has an infection requiring antibiotics.
- It can sometimes be harder to identify the cause of a cough. In general, if it is associated with a runny nose, red eyes, ear pain or a wheeze, it is far more likely to be viral. Noisy chests are also common in young children with viral infections.
- Coughing can wake a child in the night but does not mean the illness is more severe.
- Children requiring antibiotics usually appear more unwell, with difficulty breathing, drowsiness, cold hands and feet and possibly blue lips – your child may need urgent medical attention if any of these features are present. Use the symptom checker below to help you decide what to do.
Watch a GP and health visitor talking about what they would look out for in a child with a cough and cold:
When should I worry and what should I do?
Call 999 or go to A&E now if your child:
- Is going blue around the lips
- Has pauses in their breathing (apnoea) or has an irregular breathing pattern or starts grunting
- A harsh breath noise as they breathe in (stridor) present all of the time (even when they are not upset)
- Too breathless to talk / eat or drink
- Becomes pale, mottled, and feels abnormally cold to touch
- Becomes extremely agitated (crying inconsolably despite distraction), confused or very lethargic (difficult to wake)
- Develops a rash that does not disappear with pressure (the ‘Glass Test’)
Call 111 or ask for an urgent GP appointment if your child:
- Has laboured/rapid breathing or they are working hard to breath – drawing in of the muscles below the lower ribs, at the neck or between the ribs (recession)
- A harsh breath noise as they breathe in (stridor) present only when they are upset.
- Seems dehydrated (sunken eyes, drowsy or passed no urine for 12 hours)
- Is becoming drowsy (excessively sleepy) or irritable (unable to settle them with cuddles, toys, TV, food or snacks) – especially if they remain drowsy or irritable despite their fever coming down
- Has extreme shivering or complains of muscle pain
- Is 3 to 6 months of age with a temperature of 39°C / 102.2°F or above (but fever is common in babies up to 2 days after they receive vaccinations)
- Continues to have a fever of 38.0°C or above for more than 5 days
- Is getting worse or if you are worried
Get general advice on the NHS website or from your local Pharmacy if your child:
- Keep your child well hydrated by offering them lots of fluids
- Most children with coughs/colds do not require treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics rarely speed up recovery and often cause side effects such as rash and diarrhoea. They will also promote the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in your child
- Try children’s paracetamol and/or ibuprofen – cough syrup does not tend to help with coughs
- Try using saline nose drops or spray if your baby has a blocked nose
- For children over 1 year, a spoon of honey (perhaps in a warm drink) half an hour before bed may help them to wake less often in the night because of cough
- For children over 2 years, vapour rubs (containing camphor, menthol and/or eucalyptus) may help children sleep better
Antibiotics don’t usually speed up recovery!
Where should you seek help?
- If it is non-urgent, speak to your local pharmacist or health visitor
- Or contact you GP practice and a qualified member of the clinical team will assess if your child needs to be seen urgently. For an urgent out-of-hours GP appointment, call NHS 111
You should only call 999 or go your nearest A&E department in critical or life threatening situations.