Colds, coughs, RSV and viral infections in children

Children can pick up viral infections such as cold and flu more easily than adults. This is because their immune system is still developing.

Information:

Symptoms of COVID-19 can be similar to symptoms of a cold.

Get advice about symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do

This page includes advice on the following common viral infections in children:

Preventing colds, RSV and other viruses

Follow advice on how to prevent catching or spreading a virus. You can teach older children to do some of these themselves.

Do

  • wash their hands properly and regularly

  • always carry tissues and cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when they cough or sneeze

  • cough or sneeze into your bent elbow if you do not have a tissue and wash your hands after

  • put used tissues in the bin and wash your hands after

  • avoid close contact with people who have cold or flu symptoms

  • avoid close contact with people more at risk of viruses if you or your child is unwell

  • keep your child home from school, childcare and other activities if they are not well enough to attend

Don't

  • do not share water bottles, cups, glasses or anything else your child puts in their mouth

  • do not touch your eyes or nose when you are unwell

Make sure your child’s vaccines or immunisations are up to date, including the nasal flu vaccine each year.

Some parents teach older children to 'dab' when they sneeze. Dabbing is a dance move in which a child drops their head into their bent elbow. This can be a fun way for your child to learn good hygiene when sneezing.

Treating viral infections at home

You can usually treat a child with a winter viral infection at home. Keep your child home from creche or school if they are not well enough to attend.

You ask your pharmacist for advice on medicines.

Most of the time you do not need to visit your GP. But trust your instincts. Bring your child to your GP if you are worried about them.

Urgent advice: Get an urgent GP appointment if your child:

  • is under 3 months old and has a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher, or you think they have a fever
  • is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature of 39 degrees Celsius or higher, or you think they have a fever

Immediate action required: Call 112 or 999 if:

  • your child finds it hard to breathe

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV is a common virus that causes coughs and colds every winter. Most symptoms are mild and clear up within 2 to 3 weeks without treatment.

But RSV can be serious for:

  • babies under 1 year of age
  • children aged 1 to 4 years
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • adults aged 65 years and older

You can protect people more at risk of RSV by following advice on preventing the spread of viral infections.

There is no home test for RSV. Most people only find out they have a condition caused by RSV if they are in hospital for treatment.

RSV symptoms

Symptoms of an RSV infection start like a cold and can include:

  • runny nose
  • fever (temperature of 38 degrees Celsius)
  • cough
  • sore throat

After 3 to 4 days babies and young children can develop bronchiolitis, with symptoms including:

  • increased breathing (more breaths per minute)
  • wheezing
  • difficulty feeding or decreased appetite
  • less wet nappies

Babies and young children usually recover from an RSV infection over 10 to 14 days. But many children may have a cough that lasts for weeks after the start of the infection.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection in babies and young children under 2 years old, especially babies under 6 months old. It usually begins like a cold.

Most cases are mild and clear up within 2 to 3 weeks without treatment. Sometimes it can be more serious.

Treating bronchiolitis at home

Children's colds

It's normal for a child to have 8 or more colds a year. There are hundreds of different cold viruses. Young children have no immunity to any of them as they have never had them before.

They gradually build up immunity and get fewer colds.

Colds usually start with a sore throat. After that, your child might start sneezing or get a blocked or runny nose. They may also get a cough and feel unwell.

Symptoms and causes of a cold

Treating a cold at home

You can usually treat a child with a cold at home. Most of the time, a visit to your GP is not needed. Talk to your pharmacist instead.

Ask them about giving your child liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen if your child:

If their nose is stuffy or blocked, saline drops or saline nasal sprays can help.

Get your family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.

Cough and cold remedies for children

Do not give children under 6 over-the-counter cold remedies, unless told to by a GP or pharmacist. This includes decongestants (medicines to clear a blocked nose).

If your child is over 6, your pharmacist might give you an over-the-counter cough medicine.

Supplements for children

There is no evidence that giving your child garlic or vitamin C will help them to recover from a cold.

But if your baby is less than a year old, make sure you are giving them their Vitamin D supplement.

Information:

Do not give the herbal remedy echinacea to children under 12 years old. It's not clear if is safe for young children.

Children's coughs

Children often cough when they have a cold because of mucus trickling down the back of the throat.

A cough is not usually anything to worry about if your child feeds, drinks, eats and breathes normally and is not wheezing.

It's upsetting to hear your child cough. But coughing helps clear away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat.

Treatment for a cough

If your child is over the age of 1, they can try drinking a warm drink of lemon and honey.

To make hot lemon with honey at home, you need to:

  • squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
  • add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
  • drink while still warm (do not give hot drinks to small children)

If your child is older than 6 months and has a high temperature, you can usually look after your child at home.

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP if your child is:

  • not better after 3 weeks
  • breathless or seem to be having difficulty with breathing
  • very distressed by the cough
  • not drinking as much as usual
  • awake a lot at night coughing
  • have asthma or any chronic heart or lung conditions or problems with their immune system

Asthma symptoms

Bring your child to your GP if their cough:

  • continues for a long time, especially if it's worse at night
  • is brought on by them running about

Your GP may want to check your child for conditions like asthma. Asthma tends to run in families. So always tell your GP if there are others in the family with asthma.

Immediate action required: Call 112 or 999 if:

  • your child finds it hard to breathe

Flu symptoms

A cold or a cough can be a symptom of the flu. If your child has other symptoms of the flu, keep them at home for at least 5 days after their symptoms began.

Other symptoms include:

  • a high temperature - over 38 degrees Celsius
  • aches and pains
  • tiredness
  • sore throat
  • headaches

Flu vaccine

Children aged 2 to 17 can now get the nasal flu vaccine for free.

The flu vaccine will help protect your child against flu and reduce the spread of flu to others. For example their brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.

Flu vaccine for children aged 2 to 17

Croup

A child with croup has a distinctive barking cough. They will make a harsh sound, known as stridor, when they breathe in.

They may also have a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature.

Your GP can diagnose croup.

Croup in babies and children

Immediate action required: Call 112 or 999 or go to your nearest emergency department (ED) if your child:

  • has severe symptoms of croup
  • finds it hard to breathe

They will need urgent treatment in hospital.

Winter vomiting bug

The winter vomiting bug is caused by a germ called norovirus. You can get a norovirus infection at any time of the year. But it's more common in winter.

If your child gets the winter vomiting bug it can take 1 or 2 days before they show symptoms. They may become unwell quite suddenly.

Symptoms usually last for 2 to 3 days and can include:

  • projectile vomiting - vomit forcefully sent out of the body, it can propel for several feet
  • watery diarrhoea
  • a high temperature - over 38 degrees Celsius
  • stomach cramps
  • muscle aches
  • pains
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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 8.

Page last reviewed: 25 November 2022
Next review due: 25 November 2025