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Cough/colds (over 1's)

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This advice is intended for parents/carers taking their child home after consulting a health professional.  Your doctor may recommend different treatments depending on your child's condition.


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What are coughs and colds?

Coughs and colds are common in children. Most children will get better by themselves. The cough can often take 2-3 weeks to go away though. Most coughs in children (under 5 years of age) are caused by viral infections. If your child has a viral infection, they may also have a runny nose or earache. 

Occasionally children with a cough can have a chest infection. 

Symptoms of a chest infection may include:

  • Prolonged fever (fever for more than 5 days) 
  • Breathing faster than usual 
  • Working harder to breathe – pulling in at the bottom of their ribs, between their ribs or in their neck 
  • Being too breathless to feed (young children) or talk in sentences (older children) 
  • Having pain in their chest when breathing or coughing 

Most children with coughs/colds do not need treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics do not treat viral infections. They usually will not help your child get better more quickly. They often cause side effects such as rash and diarrhoea. They will also promote the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in your child. 

Antibiotics are usually only considered if your child has a high fever for more than 24 hours and is breathing faster than normal plus using extra effort when breathing.  If your child has a wheeze and difficulty breathing, they are unlikely to benefit from antibiotics but may benefit from inhalers.

In addition, if your child has any amber or red features above, they will need to be urgently seen by a healthcare professional who may decide that your child may benefit from additional treatment.

You can help relieve symptoms by:

  • Giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen if they have a fever and seem uncomfortable
  • Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids

It can take a few weeks for a child to fully recover from a cough. Children rarely cough up phlegm, but they are still clearing their chest. If you are worried that after an initial improvement, their cough getting significantly worse, or not getting better after 4 weeks, you should take your child to see their GP. Most children make a full recovery from a chest infection with no lasting effects


It is not always easy to stop your child catching these infections. Good hygiene practices can reduce the spread of viral infections: 

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly 
  • Use a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Put it in the bin after you have used it 
  • Avoid sharing glasses or utensils with people who are unwell 
When should I get help?

Use the table below to help you know what to do if your child is unwell.

If your child has any of the following:

  • Has blue lips 
  • Has pauses in their breathing or has an irregular breathing pattern or starts grunting 
  • Is finding it extremely hard to breathe -too breathless to talk or eat/drink 
  • Has harsh noise as they breathe in (stridor), present all the time (even when they are not upset) 
  • Is pale, mottled (blotchy skin) and feels cold to touch 
  • Is very agitated (crying inconsolably despite distraction), confused or difficult to wake 
  • Has a rash that does not go away when you press on it (the 'Glass Test') 

You need help now:

Go to the nearest Hospital Emergency Department or phone 999


If your child has any of the following:If your child has any of the following: 

  • Has fast breathing or they are working hard to breathe - pulling in below their lower ribs, at their neck or between their ribs. 
  • A harsh breath noise as they breath in (stridor) present only when they are upset 
  • Seems dehydrated (sunken eyes, dry mouth, drowsy or not had a wee for for 12 hours) 
  • Is excessively sleepy or irritable (you cannot settle them with toys, TV, food or picking up) - especially if they still are drowsy or irritable after their fever has come down 
  • Has extreme shivering or complains of muscle pain 
  • Has a fever of 38.0°C or above for more than 5 days 
  • Is getting worse of if you are worried 

You need to see a doctor or nurse today.

Please ring your GP surgery or call NHS 111 - dial 111


If your child has none of the red or amber features

Self care

You can keep looking after your child at home. If you are still concerned about your child, call NHS 111 – dial 111

Content adapted with permission from the resource produced by the Healthier Together initiative

Editorial Information

Last reviewed: 16 November 2020

Next review: 21 June 2023

Author(s): Dr Geetika Kumar, Healthier Together