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Colds, Sore Throats and Ear Infections

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Symptoms of the Common Cold include a stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, mild fever, watery eyes, aches and pains, and general fatigue. These symptoms can occur independently or co-occur. In whatever combination they may appear, they make kids feel miserable.

thermometer pills and waterColds are caused by a virus that is easily transmitted from person to person. When a person with a cold coughs or sneezes, fine droplets of moisture containing the cold virus leave their body and travel into the air where they can infect other people. In addition, when people with a cold blow their noses or wipes their eyes, viruses are transmitted onto their hands and then onto any surfaces they may touch: door handles, toys, computers, food, etc. When other people pick or touch a contaminated surface, the virus gets onto their hands, and then can enter their bodies when they rub their noses or eyes.

The spread of contagious cold viruses can be reduced by teaching children good cold hygiene habits. Children should be taught to contain their coughs and sneezes into tissues, or, if a tissue is not available, to cough or sneeze into their arm (rather than their hands). They should wash their hands thoroughly many times a day, and especially after coughing or sneezing, or being around someone who is coughing or sneezing. Thorough hand washing is also advisable before children eat, after they use the bathroom, and any time they have touched surfaces that an infected person may have handled (such as door handles in a public building).

There is no cure for the common cold. It normally goes away on its own in five to ten days. Because colds are caused by viruses, it is generally not useful or advisable for parents to ask their doctor to prescribe antibiotics to treat their children's cold symptoms. Antibiotics are designed to fight bacteria, not viruses, and will not help symptoms.

Even though there is no cure for the cold, caregivers can do many things to keep their sick children comfortable. Children should drink plenty of water, herbal tea and other healthy fluids to keep their bodies hydrated. A lack of fluids can aggravate congestion and sore throats. Children may also like to suck on ice chips, frozen fruit pops, hard candies or lozenges to soothe a sore throat. Placing a humidifier in children's rooms can help them breathe more comfortably at night. Suggestions for how to treat children's fever are offered later in this section.

Numerous medications are available on an over-the-counter basis for the treatment of cold and flu symptoms. There has been much debate recently as to whether such medications are safe and effective for use by children. Parents should consult with their children's doctor before administering these drugs. Parents should also consult with their children's doctor if children's cold symptoms dramatically worsen, or remain severe for more than a few days.

In some cases, a sore throat is due to a strep infection (a bacterial infection), rather than due to cold virus. Unlike the common cold, strep infections will respond to antibiotic treatment. Doctors can quickly test children for strep throat with a brief swab of the back of their throat (or in some cases, a blood test) during the course of an office visit.

Sometimes, when children get a cold or other infection, the tube connecting their middle ear and throat becomes swollen and inflamed, resulting in the buildup of fluid behind the ear drum. Such trapped fluid provides a home to bacteria which may then grow and flourish, resulting in an ear infection. Because infected ear drums cannot vibrate as easily as they normally would, ear infections can result in children's temporary hearing loss. Children may also report pain or uncomfortable pressure in their ears.

It is not practically possible for parents to diagnose or treat ear infections on their own. Instead, a visit to the doctor's office is necessary in order for the condition to be properly identified and treated. Parents should look to their children's behavior (e.g., ear tugging) and self-report of pain or discomfort to know whether ear infection is a possibility worth investigating.

Doctors may suggest varying treatments for ear infections. Sometimes, doctors may want to allow the ear infection to clear up on it's own. At other times, antibiotics will be prescribed to treat the infection. When ear infections are chronic, doctors may recommend a surgical intervention designed to help the fluid trapped behind children's ear drums to drain more freely. In terms of home care, parents can offer children an appropriate doctor-approved dose of a children's pain reliever or try placing a warm towel over the ear so as to soothe the pain. Ear infections are not contagious so there is no particular concern of transmission from one child to another.