5th Aug 2020

Common Illnesses for Children and How to Spot Them

As the name suggests, the common cold is one of the most common illnesses for children. In fact, you may be familiar with some of its symptoms. A sore throat, a stuffy nose and cough are all signs of this familiar bug.

But, why do children get so many colds? What’s the difference between a cold, the flu and hayfever? And how may you help relieve your little one’s symptoms?

Read on to discover what you need to know, or skip to a particular topic by selecting one of the links below:

What is the Common Cold?

Often simply referred to as a cold, the common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, which includes the mouth, nose and throat.

The common cold spreads when a person experiencing symptoms coughs or sneezes into the air, which may then be breathed in by another person. You may also catch a cold from touching a surface that has cold-causing germs on it and then touching your face (1).

It’s very common for children to experience multiple colds each year. This is partly because there are more than 200 different bugs that may cause the common cold (2).

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When Will My Child Get Their First Cold?

Your baby may experience their first cold at any age. Keep in mind that it’s usual for children to experience several common colds in their first two years of life and frequent bouts of the common cold in children are normal, as their little immune systems develop (3,4).

However, if your baby displays signs of the common cold, it’s important to take them to see a doctor for diagnosis and a discussion about managing their symptoms. Symptoms of the common cold may be similar to those of other conditions and your health professional may recommend suitable care advice.

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Why Do Children Get So Many Colds?

You may have noticed that your child seems to experience more colds than you do. This is tied to their immune system, which has had little contact with the germs that cause the condition (5). In fact, young children may catch as many as 5-10 common colds each year while adults may only experience an average of 2-4 (6).

This frequency is also linked to the common transmission of germs at daycare and schools, where there are many children with developing immune systems in close contact with your child, and who also may not have the best hygiene practices (5)!

Over time, as children are exposed to cold-causing germs, their immune system ‘remembers’ the bugs and may respond more efficiently to them in the future.

Learn more about how the immune system remembers bugs over time

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Why Do Children Cough?

Like colds, coughing is a common condition for children. One of the reasons for this is that the two are sometimes linked and coughing is a common symptom of a cold (7).

Although coughing may cause your child some discomfort, it’s an important reflex that helps to clear their airways (8). It’s also worth noting that from time to time, children may cough for a several weeks after other symptoms of their cold have stopped (2,9).

If your child has a cough your first port of call should be taking them to see a doctor, who can assess the probable cause and advise suitable care. If your child is under 2-years-old and develops a cough, take them to see a doctor immediately.

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What is the Difference Between a Common Cold and the Flu?

The common cold and influenza (the flu) are both respiratory tract infections but there are some important differences between the two conditions, especially as the flu must be diagnosed by your doctor.

Key differences between a common cold and medically diagnosed flu are the germs that cause them, the onset of symptoms and the duration of the illness.

It’s important to take note of your child’s symptoms if they are unwell. If you have any concerns about your child’s health or suspect they are experiencing influenza, take them to see a health professional. During the appointment, you may find it useful to discuss the following symptoms.

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Common Cold Symptoms

If your child has a common cold, they may experience a combination of the following symptoms. These usually come on gradually and may last 7-10 days (3,4).

  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache
  • A general sense of feeling unwell

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Flu Symptoms

Comparatively, symptoms of medically diagnosed influenza generally develop more quickly.

These may be more severe and may last for 1-2 weeks (3,4).

  • Fever or feverish chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Stuffy Nose

If your child is experiencing these symptoms or you are otherwise concerned that they may have the flu, it’s important to take them to see a doctor.

Influenza is a notifiable disease, which means it must be diagnosed and recorded by a suitably qualified health professional. This allows potential outbreaks to be monitored.

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What is the Difference Between a Common Cold and Hayfever?

While common colds and the flu are usually caused by germs, hayfever is commonly a reaction to different allergens. Common allergens that trigger hayfever include pollen, dust, mold and pet dander (3,4).

It may be tricky to tell if your child is experiencing a common cold or hayfever as both conditions may share similar symptoms.

These include a sore throat, sneezing and nasal congestion. However, differences between the two may be observed in the type of runny nose your child has. Keep an eye out for:

  • Nasal discharge colour – Discharge caused by hayfever is often clear, while discharge associated with a cold is more likely to be green or yellow in colour (3,4).
  • Symptom duration – A common cold generally only lasts 1-2 weeks whereas hayfever may be recurring or seasonal (3,4).

If you’re concerned that your child may be experiencing hayfever, it’s best to talk to your doctor to determine the cause of their symptoms. It may also be helpful to monitor their symptoms in relation to contact with specific allergens and at different times of the day.

You may also find hypo-allergenic soaps, detergents, pillows and pillowcases helpful for managing their hayfever.

Find out more about the reasons your child may have a runny nose

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What is the Difference Between a Chesty Cough and a Dry Cough?

Not all coughs are the same. In fact, there are two distinct types of cough that your child may experience.

These are commonly known as a chesty cough and a dry cough, and their causes and symptoms may differ. So, how can you tell the difference between the two?

It’s important to note that regardless of whether your child’s cough is chesty or dry, your first port of call should be taking them to see a doctor, who can assess their condition and advise suitable care. If your child is under 2-years-old and develops a cough, take them to see a doctor immediately (10).

Spotting A Chesty Cough

A chesty cough is the body’s reflex to expel mucus and keep it out of the throat and lungs. Because of this, it’s sometimes called a ‘wet’ or a ‘productive’ cough.

A chesty cough usually occurs when the body has produced excess mucus or phlegm, which may be in response to a viral infection such as the common cold (10).

  • Bringing up mucous when they cough
  • A wet sounding cough
  • Increased coughing in the morning

Spotting A Dry Cough

Unlike a chesty cough, a dry cough is non-productive. This means that no mucous is produced. It may be ticklish and occasionally painful, and your little one may describe their dry cough as feeling ‘scratchy’.

While a dry cough may also be a symptom of the common cold, other causes include (10):

  • Dust
  • Foreign irritants in the throat
  • Exposure to smoke
  • A raspy sounding cough
  • A tickling feeling in the throat

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Tips to Help Relieve Your Child’s Common Cold Symptoms

When your child is experiencing a common cold or a cough, it’s normal for them to feel a bit of discomfort. And, as a parent, no one likes to see their little one feeling poorly.

If your child’s is experiencing discomfort associated with their mild symptoms, you may wish to try out some of these tips to help provide them with some relief.

Stay Hydrated

Ensure your child drinks plenty of fluids, preferably plain water. This may support their body to keep the mucus thin and easier to expel.

Avoid Airborne Irritants

Exposure to airborne irritants such as smoke may cause your child to cough more.

Try Warm Water Or Tea With Honey

If your child is more than 12-months-old, 1-2 teaspoons of honey dissolved in warm water or tea may help to relieve their sore throat.

Do not to give honey to children younger than 12-months-old.

Honey sometimes contains a type of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum bacteria. If ingested by children younger than 1-year-old, this type of bacteria produces a toxin that causes infant botulism. Botulism is a serious condition, therefore it is important that children under 12 months of age are not given honey.

Try A Chest Rub

A chest rub may help to relieve your little one’s cough and cold symptoms.

Remove The Mucous

Teaching your child to blow their nose or using a nasal aspirator may help to clear excess mucous and temporarily relieve the discomfort of a runny nose. Discover more tips to help relieve your child’s runny nose

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Tips to Help Prevent a Common Cold

It’s normal for children to experience a common cold from time to time as their developing immune system learns and adapts. However, you may help to prevent its spread and frequency by supporting your child’s immune system and practicing good hygiene habits.

Try integrating these handy tips to help support your child’s healthy immune system function and teaching them good hygiene practices.

Tips To Help Support Your Child’s Immune System

  • Breastfeeding – Breastfeeding aids the development of a child’s immune system (11,12)
  • Sleep – Getting adequate sleep is important for supporting immune system health and function (13,14)You can find the recommended sleep times for children by age here.
  • Nutrition – Different nutrients support your little one’s immune system in different ways. By serving them a variety of fruits and vegetables you may help to ensure they get adequate levels of these.
  • Probiotics – Probiotics may help to support the healthy bacteria balance in your child’s gut, also known as the microbiome. A healthy microbiome is linked to some of the body’s first lines of defence: the mucous membranes. If you’d like to learn more about the microbiome and it’s role in immune system health, click here.
  • Talk to a health professional – If you have any concerns about your child’s immune system

Top tip: if they’re not as hungry or are fussier than usual, try serving smaller, more frequent meals.

Practice Good Hygiene Habits

  • Hand washing – Teach you child that washing their hands with soap and warm water, for at least 20 seconds helps to reduce the germs that cause colds. Encourage them to wash their hands properly after sneezing, coughing and using the bathroom, and before eating.
  • Limit face touching – Try to discourage your child from touching their eyes, nose and mouth when their hands aren’t clean.
  • Know what to share – Talk to your child about the importance of sharing, but explain to them that by not sharing straws, cups, cutlery and bottles they may help to prevent the spread of germs.
  • Know where to cough and sneeze – Explain to your little one that they may help to prevent the spread of cold-causing bugs by sneezing into a tissue and quickly discarding it, as well as coughing into their elbow.

Explore more information about supporting your child’s immune system

During childhood, it’s normal for children to catch a cold from time to time as their immune systems adapt over time.

By supporting their immune systems and encouraging good hygiene habits you may help to keep some of the bugs at bay. But, if they do catch a pesky cold, rest, hydration and a trip to your local doctor may help you to manage their symptoms.

Keep in mind, if you have any concerns about your child’s health, or if they have a cough, it’s important to take them to see a doctor right away.

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What's Next?

Have you found this information useful? If so you may enjoy the following:

Reasons Why Your Child May Have A Runny Nose And How To Help

7 Immune-Boosting Foods To Help Support Your Child


  1. Government of Western Australia – Department of Health. n.d. Common Cold. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2020].
  2. Carrillo, J, Garcia, F, Coronado, O, et al. 2017. Physiology and Pathology of Innate Immune Response Against Pathogens. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.70556
  3. Rutter, P & Newby, D. 2020. Community Pharmacy: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. 4. Elsevier Health Sciences. Chatswood, NSW.
  4. Simon, C, Everitt, H, van Dorp, F, et al. 2014. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 4. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.
  5. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct. 2019. Colds and flu in babies and children. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2020]
  6. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct.d. Colds. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 April 2020].
  7. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. 2018. Cough. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2020]
  9. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct. 2017. Cough. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 April 2020]
  10. Reference: Harvard Health Medical School. 2018. Cracking the Cough Code. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 April 2020]
  11. Simon, A, Hollander, G & McMichael, A. 2015. Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282: 20143085.
  12. Infant Feeding Guidelines. [ebook] Canberra, Australia: National Health and Medical Research Council, pp.1-26. Available at: [Accessed 30 April 2020].
  13. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct .2018. Sleep. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 April 2020].
  14. Sleep Foundation. n.d. How Sleep Affects Your Immunity. [online] Available at:[ Accessed 30 April 2020].