What's causing your child's cough and sniffles?

  • If your child's cold symptoms don't improve in three to six days, and she develops a fever, she may have a sinus or ear infection.

    If your child's cold symptoms don't improve in three to six days, and she develops a fever, she may have a sinus or ear infection. Stock Photo

  • Dr. Erin McCann

    Dr. Erin McCann

By Amita Health
Posted1/18/2020 6:00 AM

Cough and congestion are common for many children this time of year, signaling any number of illnesses. For parents, it's important to identify the exact cause of your child's discomfort, as effective treatment starts with an accurate diagnosis.

With just a bit of basic information, you can help your pediatrician begin to determine if you're dealing with a cold, a sinus infection or environmental allergies, said Dr. Erin McCann, pediatrician with Amita Health Medical Group.


Is it a cold?

"The symptoms of an upper respiratory infection -- also known as the common cold -- are nasal discharge, congestion, cough and headache," McCann said.

Sometimes, the symptoms are accompanied by fever, as well. The symptoms of the common cold usually last seven to 10 days, often starting with a runny nose or nasal congestion, progressing to cough. The cough is the last symptom to resolve, which can take two to three weeks after it begins. Symptoms tend to peak within three to six days, then start to improve.

Is it a sinus infection?

Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses that typically causes pain or tenderness in areas of the face above or below the nose and eyes in adults. A child's nasal sinuses, however, are not typically fully developed until the age of 12, so they may not experience the same symptoms, McCann said.

"In children, sinusitis typically is a secondary infection from an existing cold," she said. "You may suspect sinusitis in children if they have had a cold for more than 10 days and the symptoms are not getting better."

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McCann said a visit to the doctor may be recommended if your child's cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, especially if they develop fever after three to six days, the amount of time a cold should take to begin to improve. Most common cold symptoms are viral and will run their course in about a week. However, some sinus infections or ear infections are bacterial and need to be treated with antibiotics, she said.

Is it an allergy?

"If your child is having an allergic reaction to something in their environment, they also may have runny nose, nasal congestion or cough," McCann said. "The nasal discharge caused by allergies is typically watery and clear. Sneezing, itchy nose and itchy or watery eyes also may be present."

Allergies don't cause a fever, she said. Children's allergies will occur as long as they're exposed to the allergen, so it's helpful to determine what is causing the reaction and avoid those triggers. However, your child might need oral medications, nasal sprays or eye drops to help relieve the symptoms.

"Regardless of the reason for your child's cough or congestion, they deserve to feel better," McCann said. "If the symptoms persist for more than a week or so, be certain to see the pediatrician."

• Children's health is an ongoing series. This week's article is courtesy of Amita Health, which is comprised of 19 hospitals, including Amita Health Women & Children's Hospital, Hoffman Estates. For details about Amita Health's programs and services, visit www.amitahealth.org.

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