How Long Can a Typical Cold Last?

Q: I never know when I should take my 6-year-old son in to the doctor for a cough or runny nose. How long can a typical cold last?

A: I know it’s hard when your child is suffering from a cold, especially when colds last an average seven to 12 days. Unfortunately, winter and colds seem to go together. There are several things to consider before bringing your child in to the doctor for typical cold symptoms such as a cough, runny nose, stuffed nose, and sore throat.

Fevers make a big difference. If a high fever (102-104) accompanies cold symptoms, body aches, and fatigue, he may have influenza.  There is prescription medication that may be helpful in the first 48 hours for the flu. If your son has a sore throat with a fever, but no cough or congestion, it might be strep throat so you should bring him in for a test.  Fevers with colds usually occur at the start, and last 72 hours or less. Fever may help fight off infections, so if he is comfortable, there is no need to treat the fever just to bring the number down. 

For a cough, I advise parents to bring their child in if there’s chest tightness, difficulty in breathing, or wheezing. Those are all signs the cold may be turning into bronchitis or another lung infection, like pneumonia.  Otherwise the cough may take 2 weeks or more to gradually clear up.

As for the runny nose, color of the nasal discharge is not that helpful.  If it is clear or white, it is not a sinus infection. If it’s yellow or green, it’s still probably not a sinus infection. Signs of a sinus infection can include facial pain or headaches, persistent fever, or cough that is not starting to improve within 7-10 days.

In children, colds can lead to ear infections. Watch for ear pain and a possible fever. Many ear infections are viral and resolve on their own.  If you can keep the pain under control, you can wait 24-48 hours to see if it resolves, so you can avoid a doctor visit and unneeded antibiotics.  Antibiotics only help with bacterial infections, rather than viral infections, and can cause side effects. 

When your child has a cold, it’s important to make him as comfortable as possible using a humidifier and nasal saline drops or sprays to clear mucous.  Over the counter cold medicines often don’t help and can cause side effects, so are not recommended under age 6.  Even over age 6, they may not help.  Be sure to follow directions carefully, and don’t use multiple medications to avoid interactions or overdosing. A teaspoon of honey has been shown to be more effective for cough than cough syrups.  It’s also important he get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.

Keep an eye on your child’s symptoms and if you have questions, contact your physician’s office. 

Today’s expert is Dr. Andrew Collins, pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians-Oshkosh, and ThedaCare Physicians-Shawano.