Colds, coughs 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.

Prevent the spread of COVID-19

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

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

Prevent your child from catching or spreading viral infections

To help prevent your child from catching or spreading a virus, teach them:

  • how to wash their hands properly and regularly
  • to always carry tissues and cover their mouth and nose with a tissue if they are coughing or sneezing
  • to cough or sneeze into their bent elbow and then wash their hands, if they don't have a tissue
  • to bin used tissues, then wash their hands
  • not to share water bottles, cups, glasses or anything else they put into your mouth
  • not to touch their eyes or nose when unwell
  • to avoid close contact with anyone who you know has cold or flu symptoms

Make sure your child’s vaccines or immunisations are up to date.

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.

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.

Read more about symptoms and causes of a cold

Recovering from a cold

Most colds get better in 5 to 7 days, but can take up to 3 weeks in small children.

Keep your child home from school if they are not well enough to attend.

Wait until they are:

  • feeling better
  • eating and drinking as normal
  • their temperature is back to normal - under 38 degrees Celsius

Talk to your pharmacist

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.

How to wash your hands

Cough and cold remedies for children

Under 6s should not have 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.

Do not give echinacea to under 12s

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

Children's coughs

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

If your child is feeding, drinking, eating and breathing normally and there's no wheezing, a cough is not usually anything to worry about.

Although it's upsetting to hear your child cough, 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)

When to see your GP

Non-urgent advice: Bring your child to see your GP if they are:

  • 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

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

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

Trust your instincts. Bring your child to your GP if you are worried about them.

Asthma symptoms

If a cough continues for a long time, especially if it's worse at night or is brought on by your child running about, bring your child to your GP.

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.


If your child is finding it hard to breathe, call 999 immediately.

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.

Read more about flu vaccine for children aged 2 to 17

Read about the flu


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.

Croup can usually be diagnosed by a GP and treated at home.


Your child's symptoms may be severe and they may find it hard to breathe. If so, go to your nearest emergency department (ED) or call 999 immediately. They will need urgent treatment in hospital.

Read more about the symptoms of croup.

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

Related topics


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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: 7 February 2020
Next review due: 7 May 2023