Colds In Children

Colds In Children

Colds are common in tamariki (children). They are caused by viruses that spread easily through coughing and sneezing. Learn more about common cold symptoms and how to manage them.

Illustration by Dr Greta File. Property of KidsHealth. 

Illustration showing the symptoms of common cold in a child


Key points about colds in children

  • colds are common in tamariki 
  • they are caused by viruses
  • viruses spread through coughing, sneezing and by touching infected surfaces 
  • common cold symptoms include sore throat, cough, sneezing and a runny nose
  • most tamariki recover from their cold without needing much treatment

What is a cold?

A cold is a viral infection that affects the respiratory tract. The respiratory tract contains the parts of the body related to breathing. It includes the:

  • nose
  • throat
  • windpipe
  • air passages in the lungs
  • the lungs

Colds mainly affect the nose and throat. Colds are also called upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). 

What causes colds?

There are many different viruses that can cause colds. The viruses that cause colds spread easily by coughing, sneezing and touching infected surfaces.

Who gets colds? 

Colds are very common in tamariki. Some preschoolers can get up to 12 colds a year. Sometimes it can feel like your child constantly has a cold, especially during winter. 

Young tamariki get lots of colds because they haven’t had time to build up immunity to the many viruses that cause colds. As tamariki grow, they gradually build up their immunity and get fewer colds. 

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Common symptoms of a cold in tamariki include:

  • runny or blocked nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat and ears
  • cough
  • mild fever 
  • headache
  • swollen glands around the head and neck 
  • being grizzly and tired
  • not eating or drinking as much as usual

Symptoms of a cold can last from a few days to over a week. Most tamariki get better without any problems. 

How can I manage my child's symptoms at home?


Encourage your child to rest and take a break from sports and exercise. There’s no need for them to stay in bed. Just let your child decide how active they want to be.

Food and fluid

Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids. Offer them small amounts of water, often. Your child may not feel like eating much when they have a cold. Their appetite will return as they start to get better. 

Paracetamol if needed

You can give paracetamol if your child is in discomfort or miserable with a fever. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle or packet. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose.

When should I seek help for my child? 

Call Healthline or see a health professional

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 or take your child to see a health professional if they: 

  • are under 3 months old with a fever
  • are taking less than half of their normal feeds
  • won’t drink fluids
  • vomit frequently
  • are unusually sleepy
  • have a fever for more than 48 hours
  • have a cough that continues for more than 2 weeks
  • are breathing fast, have noisy breathing or are working harder to breathe

If you're worried about your child or if their symptoms are getting worse or last for more than a week, take them to see a health professional. 

Dial 111

Dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) and ask for urgent medical help if your child: 

  • is blue around the mouth
  • is hard to wake 
  • is floppy
  • is having increasing trouble breathing or is breathing faster or harder than usual
  • complains of an intense headache

What treatments are available for colds?

There is no medicine that can make a cold go away quicker. The best thing is to treat the symptoms.


If your child has discomfort, you can give paracetamol to make them more comfortable. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle or packet. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose. Never give your child aspirin as this may increase the risk of Reye syndrome, which is a rare and serious illness.

Saline drops

You can try giving your child saline nasal drops, which might help their blocked nose. You can get these from your local pharmacy. 

Are there any treatments I should avoid giving my child with a cold?

Cough medicine

Cough medicines are not useful for treating cough. Avoid giving your child cough medicine unless recommended by your health professional. 


Decongestant medicine won’t help your child recover from their cold any quicker. It can also cause side effects like fast heart rate and poor sleep. Avoid giving decongestant medicine to tamariki. 


Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help treat a cold. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections.

How can I prevent my child from getting a cold?

There are simple things you can do to reduce your child’s chances of getting a cold or passing on a cold. 

Hand hygiene

Use hand sanitiser or encourage frequent hand washing with soap and water. 

Cough hygiene

Teach your child to cough into their elbow to avoid getting germs on their hands. Teach them to sneeze into a tissue and throw it away as soon as possible. Remind them to sanitise or wash their hands after sneezing, coughing and blowing their nose. 

Don't share drinks and utensils 

Make sure your child doesn’t share cups, drink bottles or utensils with others when they are sick. 

Are there any complications from having a cold?

Colds are usually mild, and almost all tamariki get fully better. Very occasionally, there can be complications from a cold, such as:

This page last reviewed 17 May 2024.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it