Colds: Picture of boy blowing his nose

Colds in Children: Does Snot Color Really Matter?

What are colds?

Illnesses limited to chest and nose congestion (or coughing and sneezing in older children and adults) – the most common of all pediatric infections – are commonly called “colds”. These infections are caused by viruses. Many of them will have lots of snot (more professionally called mucous).

TREATMENT

No treatment (allopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic etc.) has been shown to help anyone clear symptoms quicker than with chicken soup. Not that we’re pushing chicken soup, but we’re definitely not advocating drugs to cure colds. Fortunately, having normal immune systems is all that is needed to clear a cold. The only purpose in treating someone with a cold is to make them feel more comfortable while they are ill. This may be important if that person is feeling ill and is unimportant if that person is only slightly bothered.

COLDS: WHAT ABOUT AT NIGHT?

Most children are not bothered by cold symptoms except when they are trying to sleep, especially at night. The congestion can interfere with nose breathing and interfere with sleeping. For this problem a cool (it’s safer than the hot ones, but both work well) mist machine works best. Do not put any medication into the machine – use only water.
If the amount of mist is not sufficient to ease the nose breathing, taking a bed sheet and (safely) drape it over the head of the crib (or bed). Aiming the mist so it blows into the canopy will usually loosen the mucus and ease the breathing.

HOW LONG SHOULD A COLD LAST?

Colds last anywhere from several days (in a young healthy adult) to 6 weeks (in an healthy infant). The nose and chest congestion should start to decrease (slowly in infants) after the first 3-5 days of the cold. After the first week of the cold the amount of congestion should decrease week by week. Significant nose congestion that lingers more than 10 days without improving is suspicious for being a sinus infection.

COMPLICATIONS

Colds can lead to ear infections (especially in children who are prone to them), sinus infections (especially in children who are prone), asthma episodes (in anyone who has asthma) etc.. But for most children and adults colds don’t cause anything more than a temporary bother.

THE COLOR OF SNOT?

The color of snot (mucous) is not helpful in determining whether a cold is something more than a cold or even different from a cold. Commonly, snot goes from clear to yellow/green and then back to clear during the usual course of a cold. In the past, you may have heard green or yellow snot means a bacterial sinus infection. We currently do not use the color of snot to help determine a sinus infection or if a child needs antibiotics. 

WHEN TO TAKE YOUR CHILD TO THE DOCTOR

If your child is breathing without problem through the nose and they are still uncomfortable, then a doctor visit is reasonable. Of course, there’s nothing we can do to cure that cold. However, one is more suspicious of a complication when the nose is clear and the child is still unhappy. And we can help with most complications.
Again, there are no over-the-counter medications that will help alleviate the nose and chest symptoms. Further, there are no over-the-counter medications that will help give even temporary relief from the symptoms. Because of potential side-effects, including rare deaths, it is recommended that NO over-the-counter cold medication be given to any child at any time.

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