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What causes coughs and colds and what are the symptoms?

Most coughs and colds are caused by viruses. Many different viruses can infect the nose and throat. They are passed on by coughing and sneezing the virus into the air. An average pre-school and primary school child has 3-8 coughs or colds per year. Sometimes several coughs or colds occur one after the other. A child who lives with smokers has an increased risk of developing coughs and colds.

  • The common symptoms are a cough and a runny nose. The cough is often worse at night. Coughing does not damage the lungs.
  • In addition, a child may have: a raised temperature (fever), a sore throat, headache, tiredness, and be off their food. Sometimes children vomit after a bout of coughing.
  • A build-up of mucus behind the eardrums may cause dulled hearing or mild earache.

What are the treatments for coughs and colds?

Unfortunately there is no magic cure! Typically, symptoms are worse in the first 2-3 days, and then ease over the next few days as the immune system clears the virus. An irritating cough may linger for up to 2-4 weeks after other symptoms have gone.

Coughs and colds often do not need any treatment. Make sure your child has enough to drink. Dehydration (low body fluid) may develop if a child has a fever and does not drink much.

Treatment aims to ease symptoms. Paracetamol (Calpol) can ease aches and pains, headaches, and fever. Ibuprofen (Nurofen) is an alternative. Both are sold in pharmacies in liquid form for children. There are various brands – ask the pharmacist if you are unsure what is suitable.

A popular treatment for nasal stuffiness (blocked nose) in a baby is to put a few drops of saline (salt water) into the nose just before feeds. This helps to clear the nose to make feeding easier. Saline is available as drops or in the form of a spray such as Calpol® Saline Nasal Spray which is suitable from birth. You can buy saline drops and sprays from your local Brennan’s Pharmacy.

Vapour rubs and decongestant capsules are another popular treatment. Vapour rubs can be applied to the chest and back (avoid application to the nostril area in small children, for safety reasons) and will help to clear nasal congestion. Decongestant capsules act in a similar way, and can be applied to handkerchiefs, pillows or a pint of hot water and used as an inhalant.

What about cough remedies?

Coughs can be divided into two main groups, which are treated in different ways. These are:

  • Productive (chesty) – where the patient will commonly cough up mucus from the chest.
  • Non-productive (dry, ticklish) – where no mucus is produced.

For productive (chesty) coughs, mucolytics such as Exputex® help to dissolve thick mucus easing it’s clearance from the chest. This will also reduce any pain the child may experience when coughing. To treat non-productive (dry, ticklish) coughs in children a simple throat syrup such as glycerine, honey and lemon, which has a soothing action, is suitable.

General Advice

When dealing with minor ailments in children there are a number of important points to remember:

  • If your child’s symptoms appear more severe than normal, if any unusual symptoms are present such as chest pains, breathing difficulties or a rash, or if you are simply worried about your child’s condition, consult your pharmacist for further information.
  • Always use a 5ml spoon or dosage syringe provided with the medication – household
  • spoons come in many sizes.
  • Follow the dosage instructions very carefully. Never give the medicine more frequently than recommended by your pharmacist or doctor.
  • Give liquid medicines slowly to avoid choking.
  • Never give a child a medicine without first consulting a pharmacist or doctor.
  • Keep medicines out of the reach of children and out of sight if possible.
  • Don’t give aspirin to children under 16, unless it is specifically prescribed by a doctor.
  • Paracetamol – Make sure you have the right strength for your child.

Check the correct dose for your child’s age, not size. Overdosing is dangerous, so ask your pharmacist for advice, and read the label carefully.

  • Ibuprofen – Ibuprofen can be given for pain and fever in children of three months and
  • over who weigh more than 5kg (11lbs). Check the correct dose for your child’s age.

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