Causes of Runny Noses in Children

young girl blowing nose sick on couch
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If you feel like your kid always has a runny nose, take heart in knowing you're not alone. A runny nose (rhinorrhea) is a very common symptom of childhood illnesses, but many parents often aren't sure of the root cause of the problem. A runny nose could mean a wide variety of things, from something as simple as a cold or allergies to something more serious like a sinus infection.

Here are a few possible culprits for your child's case of the sniffles:


Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is a common cause for a runny nose in children.

Allergy symptoms usually include a runny nose with clear discharge, stuffy nose or congestion; sneezing, an itchy nose, or red eyes, with tearing and itching.

As allergies worsen or linger, children may also develop a sore throat, headaches, and coughing, and their allergies may interfere with their sleep, leading to daytime irritability. It is these allergy symptoms that are often confused with having a cold or sinus infection, as many parents don't believe that allergies should get "so bad."

In addition to these allergy symptoms, children with allergies often have dark circles under their eyes (allergic shiners) and may have a crease near the bottom of their nose (allergic crease) from rubbing their nose so much; this is often called an 'allergic salute.'

If a child also has asthma, uncontrolled allergies may also trigger asthma symptoms, leading to coughing, wheezing, and trouble breathing.

Children with uncomplicated allergies will not usually have a fever or a runny nose that expels yellow or green discharge, though.


Although parents often first think of allergies when their kids have a runny nose, infections are likely an even more common cause, especially for younger children.

Most of these children have viral upper respiratory tract infections or the common cold, with symptoms that can include a runny nose that starts clear but may turn to a thick yellow or green discharge, congestion, a cough, a sore throat, a headache or a fever, which is usually low grade, but may go up to 102 F.

When cold symptoms linger for more than 10 days, or when the symptoms are severe, including three to four days of fever over 102 F, then the child might have a sinus infection requiring antibiotics. Keep in mind that just because your child has a runny nose with green drainage doesn't mean that he has a sinus infection, however.

A runny nose can also be a symptom of the flu. In general, these flu symptoms will be more severe than cold symptoms though, including high fever, body aches, and fatigue.

Other Causes of a Runny Nose

Although most children with a runny nose have either allergies or an infection, there are some other causes for a runny nose. One is a deviated septum, which occurs when the cartilage between the nostrils isn't properly aligned and divides the nostrils unevenly. Nasal polyps, which are growths that result from inflamed mucous membranes in the sinuses and nasal passages, also can cause a runny nose. Vasomotor rhinitis, which can be triggered by exposure to smoke, odors, foods, or changes in temperature and humidity is another possibility, as is rhinitis medicamentosa, which often occurs with the long-term use of topical decongestants

Stopping a Runny Nose

To stop your child's runny nose, choose a treatment that targets the underlying cause, whether it is allergies or an infection. Treatments that target specific nasal symptoms can also offer some relief.

Treatments that are often used to help stop a runny nose can include oral or topical decongestants, which can help unclog a stuffy nose and relieve congestion, although topical decongestants should usually not be used in children under age 12 years and only for a few days at a time for teens.

Nasal washes can relieve congestion and may prevent sinus infections, and antihistamines can stop a runny nose and sneezing caused by allergies. Antihistamines will make a child drowsy and should be used in consultation with your pediatrician, if at all.

Leukotriene antagonists (like Singulair) can decrease a runny nose, congestion, and sneezing caused by allergies, and steroid nasal sprays, which require a prescription, can decrease a runny nose, congestion, and sneezing caused by allergies.

Antihistamine nasal sprays (like Astelin) can decrease a runny nose, congestion, and sneezing caused by allergies and irritants, and if all else fails and your child has a sinus infection, it's time to get the pediatrician to prescribe some antibiotics.

Keep in mind that an FDA public health advisory about children's cold and cough syrups states that "questions have been raised about the safety of these products and whether the benefits justify any potential risks from the use of these products in children, especially in children under 2 years of age."

New warnings on cold and cough syrups now even say that they shouldn't be given to children under the age of 4. Consult your child's doctor before giving him any over-the-counter medication, even if he's taken it before. 

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