Colds in children
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A cold is an infection in the nose or throat that is almost always caused by a virus. A cold usually gets better by itself, but there are things you can do to help ease the symptoms.

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Colds are easily spread, especially during the first few days the child is ill. Wash your hands and your child’s hands frequently to avoid spreading the virus.

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Symptoms of colds in children

Symptoms of colds in children

With a cold, it is common for the child to 

  • have a blocked nose
  • sneeze and have a runny nose
  • have a slight headache
  • have a temperature
  • have a slight cough
  • have difficulty swallowing and have an irritated throat.

After the child has been infected, it takes just a day or so for the first symptoms to appear. The child usually feels poorly the first couple of days, but then feels livelier after that. The mucus starts off clear but then gets thicker. It may be grey, yellow or green. The child may have a cough and a runny nose for one to two weeks.

Coughing is part of the body’s immune defence. Coughing helps the body get rid of matter that is irritating the airways.

Children sometimes get a high temperature but it usually goes away again quickly.

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When should I seek medical care?

When should I seek medical care?

A cold usually gets better by itself, without the child needing medical attention. If the cold does not improve within a week, the child may have an infection that requires treatment.

Seek medical care at a health centre or emergency clinic if the child

  • is younger than three months old and has a temperature of 38,0 degrees Celsius or higher
  • is between three and six months old and has a temperature of 39,0 degrees or higher
  • is over six months old and has a temperature of 41,0 degrees or higher
  • has a temperature for more than four days
  • has earache and pain that has not eased after 24 hours
  • has a discharge of fluid from the ear
  • has difficulty suckling at the breast or a bottle because of a blocked nose
  • seems listless and less responsive than usual
  • refuses to eat or drink
  • has difficulty breathing, with heavy, rapid or wheezing breaths.

Thick mucus is not usually a reason to contact the doctor, as long as the child seems well in all other respects.

However, you should seek medical care if the child has mucus or a blocked nose in one nostril only. This may be due to sinusitis or the child having poked a small object, like a pea or a plastic ball, up into a nostril, where it has got stuck.

You have the right to understand

In order for you to participate actively in the care you receive and make good decisions, it is essential you understand the information you are given by healthcare professionals. Ask questions if you do not understand. If you prefer, ask them to print out the information so you can read it in the peace and quiet of your own home.

If you do not speak Swedish or you have impaired hearing, you may be entitled to the help of an interpreter.

You can make an appointment at the health centre or outpatient clinic of your choice anywhere in the country. You can also request a regular family doctor at your health centre.

You can always get medical advice by calling 1177.

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How colds spread among children

How colds spread among children

Colds spread very easily among children. The virus spreads through small droplets in the air. They can be transmitted when the child sneezes, coughs or touches something. Since children often have a lot of physical contact with both adults and other children, colds spread easily. The virus can also hang around on toys that children lick and suck. Sometimes viruses or bacteria can remain on toys for several days.

It is normal for children to get colds several times a year

Children catch cold more often than adults. During the first few years of a child’s life, it is normal for them to catch up to seven colds a year. As time goes by, they catch cold less often. From the age of ten years onwards, children tend to catch one to two colds a year, the same as adults.

During the first two years, infections do not normally give the child immunity. Older children, however, often become immune to the virus they are infected with.

Children up to the age of six months have a degree of protection against colds, thanks to antibodies transferred from their mother while they were in the womb. A newborn infant is still vulnerable to infections, particularly during its first month.

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How do I avoid spreading a cold?

How do I avoid spreading a cold?

It is difficult to prevent children catching colds but there are ways of reducing the risk of infection spreading:

  • Wash your own hands and your child’s hands often, including before and after every meal.
  • Teach your child to sneeze into the crook of their elbow instead of straight ahead.
  • Try to teach your child not to poke their fingers up their nose or into their eyes since that is where the virus can most easily take hold.

Get your child to play outside as much as possible, even in winter. Viruses spread more easily indoors.

Cigarette smoke leads to more respiratory infections

Children in environments where they breathe in cigarette smoke get respiratory infections more often than children in smoke-free environments. Keep children away from environments where people are smoking.

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Should my child stay at home?

Should my child stay at home?

Children who are tired and weak and who have a temperature should stay home from preschool or school to rest. Children who are feeling all right and do not have a temperature can go back to preschool or school even if they have a cold.

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What can I do to help my child?

What can I do to help my child?

  • It is easier for the child to breathe if his or her head is kept up. You can raise the head end of the bed by putting extra pillows under the mattress.

You can help relieve your child’s symptoms so that he or she feels as well as possible.

Very young children breathe through their nose so it can be difficult for them to feed if their nose is blocked. Often, the nose is blocked with dried mucus.

Saline drops can be used as long as is necessary

You can drip saline solution into their nose to thin the mucus and clean the nose. You can buy saline drops from the chemist without a prescription.

You can also make your own saline drops. Dissolve 1 millilitre salt into 100 ml lukewarm water. This is roughly a pinch of salt. Remember that the water must not be too hot. Drip the solution into the child’s nose using a small plastic syringe, which you can buy from the chemist, or use a cotton wool ball.

Saline drops have roughly the same salt content as body fluids such as blood and lymph. This means saline drops are gentle on the mucous membranes and can be used as often and for as long as needed.

If you are breastfeeding, you can use breast milk in the child’s nose instead of saline drops.

Nasal drops can be used for a limited period

Children can be given a decongestant nasal spray or nasal drops if they have a blocked nose. These reduce the swelling in the nose. There are no nasal sprays or drops that are approved for children under one year – saline drops should be used for these children. Various nasal sprays and drops are approved for different ages. Ask a pharmacist and read the instructions on the packaging carefully.

Decongestant nasal spray or nasal drops should not be used for more than ten days in a row. If used for longer than that, they can instead have the opposite effect and make the child’s nose become congested.

Raise the child’s head

The swelling in the mucous membranes of the nose can be reduced if the child sleeps with his or her head raised. You can try putting an extra pillow under the mattress. You can also put a couple of books under the legs of the bed at the head end. Small children may like to sit in a baby bouncer or a baby carrier.

Water is often just as good as cough medicine

Non-prescription cough medicine tends not to be any help for a cold. The cough is important for the child to be able to bring up mucous and clear the airways. Give your child ordinary water to drink. You can give honey dissolved in warm water to children over one year. Remember that honey can cause dental decay, so brush your child’s teeth. Never give cough medicine to children under two years.

Children with a temperature should drink frequently

You can give the child something to drink to relieve their cough, especially if the child also has a temperature. Children become dehydrated more quickly than adults. They need to drink more than usual, so as not to become dehydrated. Offer water, cordial or juice. A child that has not drunk enough may become tired and out of sorts, and will pass less water than usual. If the child is passing water roughly as often as usual, he or she has had enough to drink.

Sometimes a child with a temperature does not want to eat their normal food. You do not need to worry if the child has a somewhat reduced appetite for a few days. Offer food the child likes, for example, ice cream, cream or porridge.

Medication for pain or a temperature can be given as needed

A temperature is one way the body defends itself against and combats infections. A virus cannot thrive in the body if it becomes too hot so do not treat a temperature in a child if he or she feels all right otherwise.

If the child is upset, will not eat or drink, or has difficulty settling at night, you can give non-prescription temperature-reducing and pain-relieving medication containing paracetamol, for example, Alvedon or Panodil. These can be given from the age of three months, but always seek medical advice before giving medicine to a baby under six months old.

From the age of six months, children may be given pain-killing and temperature-reducing medication containing the active ingredient ibuprofen, such as Ipren or Ibuprofen.

This medicine is found in variety of forms to suit different age groups. Ask at a pharmacy what is suitable for your child. Follow the instructions on the packaging carefully and do not combine different medications.

Avoid certain medications

Children up to the age of 18 years should not take medicines containing acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), for example Treo and Bamyl, unless prescribed by a doctor. There is a risk of the child developing Reye’s syndrome. This is a rare disease that can lead to severe brain damage, among other things.

Also, do not give a child with chicken pox medicines containing ibuprofen or other drugs from the NSAID or COX inhibitor group. If used in connection with chicken pox, these medications can increase the risk of rare but serious infections.

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Since a cold is usually caused by a virus, treating it with antibiotics is of no benefit. The body’s immune system deals with it and the cold gets better by itself.

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About colds

About colds

A cold is an infection in the upper respiratory tract, primarily in the nose. A virus or bacteria cause the mucous membranes to become infected. They then become swollen and create more mucous than usual. The mucus may be thin or thick.

There are several hundred types of virus that can cause a cold.

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If the cold does not get better, the child may have developed a complication.

An ear inflammation is the most common complication

Sometimes a cold can lead to the child developing an ear inflammation. The child develops pain in one or both ears. An ear inflammation may need to be treated with antibiotics, especially in children under the age of one year or aged twelve years and upwards.

Unusual for children to develop sinusitis

Some children may develop sinusitis when they have a cold, although this is unusual. The child will then have a blocked nose, thick mucus and pain in the forehead or cheeks.

The child may also develop influenza.

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Senast uppdaterad:

Editor: Maud Cordenius, 1177 Vårdguiden


Reviewed by: Inge Axelsson, Professor Emeritus, paediatrician, Children’s Clinic, Östersund Hospital


Illustrator: Lotta Persson, Göteborg