Poor Sam: flopped on the couch, nose runny, whiny and unhappy no matter what his mom, Joelle Kovach, does.
The two-year-old is feverish and doesn’t feel like eating much because he can’t breathe and eating is just too hard. The misery that is the common cold is an infection caused by a virus, explains Michael Dickinson, the head of the paediatrics department at Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. Once you’ve had a cold, you become immune to the particular virus that caused it, but there are more than 100 viruses floating around.
Maybe that explains why Sam always seems to be sick. “I would say we’re averaging about one to two colds a month from October to March,” his mom observes. And Dickinson notes there are two other big reasons for toddler colds. First, a toddler’s relatively immature immune system means kids like Sam haven’t had time to build up their resistance. Second, “toddlers are very hands-on. Not only do little ones like to pick up pretty much everything, but most objects go into the mouth — and that’s a perfect way to contract a virus. Runny nose, chest congestion, mild fever, cough and a drop in energy are typical cold symptoms, and most run their course in four to seven days.
“It’s actually quite rare for colds to blossom into something more serious, but the most common complications are ear or sinus infection, or pneumonia,” says Dickinson. You should see the doctor if your child:
• has a fever that doesn’t respond
to acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or persists more than two days;
• is breathing quickly, vomiting, in distress or pain, or develops a rash;
• is complaining of pain, pulling at his ears or seems distressed — or you are worried;
• has phlegm or mucus that is any colour other than white or clear.
Preventing toddler sniffles is a challenge for parents, says Dickinson, “but if you were to do just one thing, focus on handwashing.” Contact is how the viruses spread, so get everyone in the family doing it. Plain old soap and water does the job just fine, but carry some hand sanitizer for those times when you’re out of range of a sink.
“Parents these days are pretty savvy about antibiotics, so we get fewer requests for them to treat a cold,” says Dickinson. “They don’t do one bit of good, unless a child develops a secondary infection. With colds, less is more. Rest, plenty of fluids and acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever is the best treatment.” And a bowl of chicken soup doesn’t hurt either.
Colds by the numbers
Eight to 10 colds in a year isn’t unusual for toddlers. For those in daycare, one to two a month is typical, especially in the winter months. “Multiple colds aren’t necessarily a sign of poor health,” says Dickinson. “Some kids are healthy but unlucky, and they get more than their fair share.”
The word on meds
Health Canada recommends that you do not give over-the-counter cold and cough remedies to children under age six because of a concern about side effects. “They don’t work all that well anyway,” says paediatrician Michael Dickinson.