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Childhood winter illness and how to cope with them

GP Dr Fiona McGuire on the most common winter illness for children - how to avoid them, how to treat them and when to get help.

Published: 6 December 2019

Child sick during winter
Coughs and colds can take between 1 to 3 weeks to clear

Children often seem to be the worst affected by common winter illnesses like coughs, colds, tummy bugs and the flu.

There's a few reasons why they pick up these infections more easily than others.

A child's immune system is not as developed as an adult’s. If they're in school or in child-care facilities, they are usually indoors a lot more in winter. So they play closer together, meaning germs spread easily.

There are some things you can do to keep your family as well as possible.

Here is what you need to know if they pick up:

  • coughs and colds
  • the winter vomiting bug

Coughs and 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

Talk to your pharmacist

You can usually treat your child with a cough or 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.

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

Related topic

Babies and children - when to see your GP

Better in 1 to 3 weeks

Coughs and colds can take between 1 to 3 weeks to clear.

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

Related topic

How to check your child’s temperature

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.

If you're thinking about giving probiotics to your child, always speak to your GP, paediatrician or pharmacist first.

Probiotics are live micro-organisms like bacteria and yeasts. They're often advertised as having lots of health benefits. But there is very little evidence to support most of these claims.

The best way to keep your child's gut healthy is to make sure they eat healthy foods. Only give them antibiotics when they need them.

Related topic

Vitamin D for babies 0 to 12 months

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

Related topic


When to get help

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

Trust your instincts. If you are worried about your child never be afraid to get medical help from your GP or practice nurse.

Child with a temperature
A high temperature is anything over 38 degrees Celsius

Prevention better than cure

Of course it's best to try to help your child avoid catching a cold in the first place. The best way to do this is to make sure they wash their hands with warm water and soap. This is especially before eating.

They should avoid sharing towels or household items, like cups, with someone who has a cold.

And try to encourage them not to touch their eyes or nose. This could spread infection if they've been in contact with a virus.

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, hence the name.

Related topic


Symptoms of the winter vomiting bug

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

Rest and plenty of fluids

Most of the time, you can look after a child with the winter vomiting bug at home.

They'll need plenty of rest. Make sure they are drinking lots of fluids. This is to prevent them becoming dehydrated. They can lose a lot of fluid from vomiting or diarrhoea. Sips of clear fluids are best.

If you are worried your child isn't drinking enough or holding down fluids, talk to your pharmacist. They might recommend that you give your child special fluids. These are called oral rehydration solution.

Do not worry about how much they're eating. They may not feel like eating.

If they are hungry, let them eat small amounts of bland foods like bread, pasta or soup.

If they have aches and pains, or tummy pains, liquid paracetamol should help them.

Related topic

Treating vomiting in babies and children

When to get help

Your child could be dehydrated if they are doing less wees than usual or their wees are dark in colour.

They may also be drowsy, pale or have cold hands and feet.

Get advice from your GP if your child has:

  • become dehydrated
  • bloody poos
  • green vomit
  • diarrhoea is going on longer than 1 week
  • difficulty keeping fluids down
  • bad tummy pains
  • a temperature that is not settling
  • recently travelled abroad
  • any underlying medical problems

Phone the GP first if you think your child has the winter vomiting bug. Otherwise you might be putting other patients at risk.

Hand washing with child
To avoid the infection spreading, show your child how to wash your hands properly with soap and warm water

Avoid spreading the bug to others

The winter vomiting bug spreads very easily between people.

To reduce the risk of it spreading, make sure you and your child wash your hands often with soap and warm water.

Do this especially:

  • after going to the toilet
  • after cleaning up vomit or diarrhoea
  • when preparing food
  • before eating food

Clean up vomit or diarrhoea spills with hot water and detergent. Flush any poo or vomit spills down the loo. Disinfect the area with a diluted solution of household bleach.

Make sure your child stays away from their crèche, childminders or school until at least 48 hours after symptoms have cleared.

Never visit anyone in hospital or nursing homes while there is winter vomiting in your house.

Other common illnesses

The illnesses that your child can get depends on what is going around.

Make sure your child's vaccines are up to date. This will protect them from many serious illnesses.

Certain ailments, such as croup and asthma, are more common in the colder months.

Read more about common conditions and symptoms affecting babies and toddlers