Tips on How to Treat Your Toddler's Cold

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Your toddler has been up half the night with a stuffy nose. During the day, they are tired, irritable, and their nose won’t stop running. You’re pretty sure it’s that cold that’s going around. And while you know there’s no cure for the common cold, you want to know what you can do to help them feel better.

While it’s true that, for the most part, you just have to let colds run their course, there are some things you can do to help your little one feel more comfortable—and hopefully, sleep a little better at night.

We reached out to three pediatricians to give us the low-down on what to know about toddler colds, and some safe and effective ways to treat them.

How to Tell If Your Toddler Has a Cold

Most colds have a few telltale signs, including congestion, increased mucus, cough, and a low-grade fever. But different colds can have different symptoms. Sometimes the same cold virus produces different symptoms in different kids.

For example, one of your children may only have mild congestion with a particular cold virus, but your other child may develop more intense congestion along with a low-grade fever. Here’s everything you need to know about cold symptoms.

Early Cold Symptoms

Ilan Shapiro, MD, medical director of health education and wellness with AltaMed Health Services, says that the earliest signs of a cold might be subtle, and won’t include many of the classic cold symptoms, like congestion or cough.

You may start to see changes in your child’s behavior, says Dr. Shapiro. They may be extra tired and may sleep more. You may also notice that your child’s appetite decreases. “Each child will express the early signs differently,” Dr. Shapiro notes.

Major Cold Symptoms

The most predominant symptoms of a cold are a runny nose and cough, says Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Along with that, other symptoms may be present, including sneezing, red/glassy eyes, decreased appetite, and increased fussiness. Teary eyes and sore throats are some additional common cold symptoms, says Dr. Shapiro.

Thomas McDonagh, MD, a pediatrician affiliated with Huntington Hospital in New York, says that fever is sometimes, but not always, a common cold symptom. Most fevers associated with the common cold are low-grade fevers, according to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP). A low-grade fever is between 101–102 degrees Fahrenheit.

The type of cough your toddler develops can vary depending on the type of viral pathogen that is causing the cold, says Dr. McDonagh. Your child’s cough may be loose, dry, or “croupy.”

The telltale signs of a croup cough are that your child sounds like a barking seal. Most croup coughs go away on their own, but if your child is having trouble breathing while they are experiencing a croupy cough—or any type of cough—you should visit the pediatrician.

Later Symptoms and Complications

Most cold symptoms are limited to congestion and coughing, are relatively mild, and go away on their own within a week or two. But sometimes other symptoms or complications develop.

Sometimes a few days after a cold, an ear infection will develop, says Dr. McDonagh. Signs of an ear infection include increased fussiness, a new fever, and pulling at the ear. Additionally, Dr. McDonagh explains, sometimes a condition called bronchiolitis develops. Bronchiolitis is an infection of the bronchioles in the lungs, and can cause wheezing and difficulty breathing.

If your child shows signs of an ear infection, bronchiolitis, an increased fever, or are exhibiting any concerning symptoms, you should make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.

Is It a Cold, the Flu, Or COVID-19?

Most common cold viruses have mild symptoms, only present with low-grade fevers, and don’t include symptoms like body aches, chills, or extreme fatigue. If your child is exhibiting signs like a high fever, body aches/chills, or extreme lethargy, you should take them to the pediatrician to rule out more serious illnesses such as the flu.

COVID-19 can also produce flu-like symptoms in children, but sometimes COVID-19 only produces mild cold-like symptoms. For this reason, doctors these days are recommending that children get tested for COVID if they are experiencing any cold-like symptoms. This can help you know whether or not your child needs to be isolated or quarantined, and if any closer contacts need to be notified.

How to Treat Your Toddler’s Cold

Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics are not useful to treat cold symptoms. When it comes to the common cold, you just have to let it run its course, and do your best to keep your child comfortable in the meantime.

That said, there are several tried-and-true remedies that can really help, and make those days (and endless nights!) with your cranky toddler a little more manageable.

What Medications Can You Use?

According to current guidelines, medications commonly used to treat cold symptoms are not recommended for children under four years old, says Dr. McDonagh. “Decongestants, antihistamines, and cough medicines are not effective and may be harmful to children younger than 4 years old; therefore, cold medicines should not be used in this age group,” he says.

As Dr. Shapiro points out, certain over-the-counter medicine to treat fevers—like acetaminophen or ibuprofen—can be used to treat fevers associated with colds. Since doses vary, you should talk to your pediatrician about what dosage is right for your child.

If your child has an ear infection or develops bacterial pneumonia, they may be given antibiotics. But again, common cold pathogens are viral in nature, so antibiotics will not be given unless a bacterial infection is present.

What Supplements Can You Give?

Since many supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and many have not been tested on children, you should not give your child any vitamin or other supplements without consulting your pediatrician.

There are some supplements that might be helpful to your child as they battle a cold.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an important vitamin for your child to be taking in on a daily basis, says Dr. Fisher. Nevertheless, there is no determined amount that your child should take to treat a cold, she says.

“The best way to consume Vitamin C for a toddler is in the form of citrus fruits (like eating an orange),” Dr. Fisher advises. “Juice has an excess of sugar so the fruit itself is better to consume.”

Zinc

Like Vitamin C, zinc is another supplement sometimes given to help with colds. “Data on the efficacy of zinc supplements is mixed,” says Dr. McDonagh. “Some studies do suggest a decrease of symptoms by one day if zinc is initiated on the first day of illness.”

Dr. McDonagh says that zinc can be poorly tolerated by toddlers due to its taste, and that too much of it can be harmful. You should talk to your pediatrician before you give zinc to your toddler.

Echinacea

Echinacea is another supplement sometimes given to treat colds. Dr. McDonagh says that it is safe to take, but that research doesn’t show a significant reduction in cold symptoms from it. Always consult with your doctor before giving your toddler an echinacea supplement.

Elderberry Syrup

Many families give their toddler elderberry syrup to treat colds, says Dr. Fisher. However, at this time she cautions against it because it can actually be harmful if your child has COVID-19 and not a common cold infection.

“There is a possibility that elderberry syrup causes increased inflammatory effects which have been shown to be dangerous if the person has COVID-19 infection, so we have gotten away from the use of elderberry syrup for colds,” says Dr. Fisher.

At-Home Remedies

At-home remedies are probably the most effective way to treat your toddler’s cold, says Dr. Fisher. Here are some doctor-approved ideas.

Warm Fluids

Warmed fluids can help clear your child’s nasal passageways and loosen up any mucus in their chest. Dr. Fisher recommends tea and warmed-up apple cider.

And of course, don’t forget chicken soup! It’s not an old wives’ tale: chicken soup (and any other warm broth) can help with colds. “Chicken soup is a warm comfort food and it's also rich in salt and water, which is what our body needs to nurse itself back to health,” says Dr. Shapiro.

Vicks VapoRub

Although there is no documented evidence that Vicks VapoRub helps with colds, there is no harm in using it for your toddler, says Dr. McDonagh. Dr. Fisher recommends applying some Vicks on your toddler’s feet at night for cold symptom relief.

Vaporizers and Humidifiers

Using a vaporizer or humidifier in the room while your child sleeps can lessen some of their cold symptoms. Vaporizers and humidifiers create humidity in the room which can help your child breathe better, says Dr. Shapiro. “These are great tools to provide comfort to our little ones when they are sick,” he says.

Honey

You should never give honey to a child under the age of one. But after 12 months, you can safely give honey to your child, says Dr. Fisher. A spoonful of honey can help suppress your child’s cough, she says.

Nasal Drop/Ball Syringe

The application of 2-3 nasal saline drops can decrease congestion, Dr. Shapiro explains. “The best thing you can do for your child is to use nasal saline drops and the ball syringe to extract mucus,” says Dr. Shapiro. The ball syringe is used to remove extra mucus from your child’s nose, and can be especially helpful because many toddlers don’t know how to properly blow their nose!

When to See a Doctor

Most common colds resolve on their own within one or two weeks, and a trip to the doctor isn’t necessary. Still, there are certain circumstances where your child’s symptoms warrant a trip to the pediatrician.

“If your child isn't drinking or urinating, is breathing fast or their fever is rising or they are turning pale or blue, it's important to get them to the pediatrician to make sure they aren't experiencing anything more serious,” says Dr. Shapiro.

In addition, if your toddler has a fever for more than two days, you should call a healthcare provider, says Dr. McDonagh. The same is true if they aren’t tolerating fluids well or develop ear pain.

Signs that your child may be having difficulty breathing would be if you notice rapid breathing, or if you notice that they are using extra muscles in their chest to breathe, says Dr. McDonagh. In these cases, it is best to seek out medical care.

A Word from Verywell

Dealing with toddler colds can be exhausting and relentless, but you should know you are not alone. Toddlers typically get between 8-10 colds each year. So, in a way, managing colds is just part of parenting a toddler, as unpleasant as they may be.

Thankfully, most toddler colds are more annoying and anything and don’t pose serious health risks to your child. A little bit of extra rest, extra fluids, and TLC is usually all it takes to get toddlers back on their feet.

Still, sometimes toddler colds can become more serious. You should never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician if your child has a high fever, isn’t keeping fluids down, is having trouble breathing, or just doesn’t seem like themselves.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. How to Care for Your Child’s Croupy Cough. Updated January 22, 2021.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine website. Influenza (Flu) in Children. Updated May 12, 2017.

  4. Healthy Children. Caring for Your Child’s Cold or Flu. Updated April 19, 2019.

  5. Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014;2(2):CD000530. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3.

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