Upper respiratory tract infections are the commonest cause of illness in children as well as in adults. A number of terms are used (sometimes inaccurately) to describe these ailments. They include ‘colds’, ‘flu’, ‘tonsillitis’, or ‘pharyngitis’. The average preschool child has at least six colds a year. Sometimes, especially in winter, it seems that the child is unwell for weeks at a time, barely getting over one cold before becoming sick again. Young children are particularly susceptible because they have not had a chance to build up immunity to the many viruses that are responsible for colds. As the child grows older, the frequency of upper respiratory tract infections decreases because he gradually builds up his immunity.
Most colds are caused by a virus. In fact there are over two hundred types of virus that can cause the common cold. This is the reason it is not possible to be immunised against a cold.
Colds are more common in the winter months. Cold weather by itself does not increase the chance of getting a cold, but people are in closer contact with each other because they stay indoors and are more likely to infect each other. The viruses which cause colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and hand contact.
These are well known to all parents and are essentially the same as in adults. There will be various combinations of a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, headache, red eyes, swelling of lymph glands, and occasionally fever. Often there will be a loss of appetite, and sometimes nausea and some vomiting. Children may be miserable or irritable.
The actual symptoms will vary from child to child, and from illness to illness. Usually the symptoms will last anywhere from a few days to a week or more, and the child recovers fully without any problems.
Very occasionally there are complications such as ear infection, laryngitis, croup, or a lower respiratory tract infection such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. These are relatively uncommon illnesses compared to the uncomplicated cold, which is widespread.
Very occasionally the doctor will order a blood test, throat swab or, rarely, a chest X-ray, but for the majority of children with upper respiratory tract infections no investigations are necessary.