The Common Cold: Why Is My Child Always Sick?
"Why is my child always sick? He seems to always have a cold."
I'm asked this question by a concerned parent several times throughout the course of a year. The common cold accounts for about one billion upper respiratory tract infections annually in the United States.
Children are more often the victims compared to adults. There are multiple reasons for this:
Children under seven years of age have immature immune systems which makes them more susceptible to cold and flu viruses.
Young children spread more germs to each other because of their tendency to cough and sneeze without covering their mouth. Additionally, they more often contact contaminated surfaces (desks, table tops and toys) and subsequently touch their nose, eyes or mouth facilitating germ transmission.
Upper airways of young children (including the ears and surrounding structures) are not fully developed until well after school age. This allows for more frequent viral and bacterial invasion.
The fact that young children are often exposed to several other young children (for example daycare and pre-school) increases the risk of getting an upper respiratory infection.
- Finally, proportionately more children (compared to adults) have allergic rhinitis and asthma which raises the likelihood of experiencing more upper respiratory infections.
It's only a matter of time before a young child starts to get sick and have the usual signs and symptoms of the common cold: runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, hacking cough, sore or scratchy throat, low grade fever and/or headache. It's not uncommon for colds to start by six months of age, especially in large family households.
When should you be concerned about your child getting too many colds?
This question is difficult to answer because often it is uncertain whether a child has recurring common cold symptoms or other problems which may mimic the common cold, such as allergies, mild flu syndrome or a chronic sinus infection.
Did you know toddlers in the U.S. average as many as eight colds a year? School age children (preteens) average five or six colds annually. Some parents are unaware of these numbers. They are high relative to adults who only average two to three colds annually.
At any given time there may be more than 200 common cold viruses circulating. Young children are building their immunity as they get sick and then subsequently recover from these infections.
What should a parent do?
Here are seven tips to consider:
- Be sure to discuss any concerns about recurring colds with your doctor in order for a consideration to be made about ordering tests or further evaluations.
- Be reassured that if your toddler is getting six to eight colds over twelve months he/she is within the norm since this is common for most preschoolers. Remember the young age is a splendid time to build immunity for future germ encounters.
3) If there are other signs or symptoms of allergies see about getting tested to environmental triggers. A spring or fall seasonal pattern suggests allergic involvement.
- Proper hydration, rest and nutrition allows for the development of a healthy immune system. Emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables can go a long way. It also lays the ground work for healthy eating in the future, when you will have less control.
- Although vitamins have not been scientifically proven to prevent or cure the common cold, a beneficial effect from vitamin C has been reported in children with respect to reducing the duration of cold symptoms (18% reduction). Allison Tsai gave an informative review on this study.
- It is widely accepted that no cure is available for the common cold. But for flu syndrome flu vaccines and medications for prevention and treatment are available. Don't miss preparing your child for each year's flu season.
Wong KK, Jain S, Blanton L, et al Pediatrics 2013;132: 796-804