My Child Has Cold Symptoms: Is He Contagious? Need a Doctor?

boy with winter coldWe are entering the season with the cold weather and children gathering in groups in school that cold symptoms are very common. But what distinguishes a cold from an allergy and when you should seek medical care for your children are topics of concern for many parents. Is he/she contagious? Should I send my child to school with these symptoms? When do I bring him/her to the Pediatrician? All good questions.

Let’s deal with the last question first. The symptoms that appear with colds and allergy are indeed very similar. There are some exceptions to common thoughts about these problems.

Allergic symptoms appear for the most part during the “shoulder” seasons – Spring and Fall, when there are allergens in the air either from growing and pollinating in the spring or debris from blowing leaves, etc. in the fall. As those leaves fall they become wet and can also produce molds which can act as allergens for certain children. Allergic symptoms are usually of a prolonged and recurrent pattern and similar to colds, and can produce sneezing, watery, itchy eyes, cough, runny nose with itching and other “cold” symptoms. No matter what the cause, this situation is not contagious and your child can go to school with all the other children with the same symptoms. This condition may respond to antihistamines such as Benadryl, Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec.

Colds on the other hand generally have a predictable life span of 5 to 10 days, and cold symptoms follow a predictable pattern of sore throat (scratchy) for 1 – 2 days, followed by sneezing and runny nose followed in rapid order by cough to one degree or another. There can be fever of any degree during this time and also does not mean another infection. Antihistamines and over the counter cold medicines are generally ineffective and especially cold preparations can have undesirable side effects. The color of the mucous during this time is insignificant as it will usually start as clear and watery and will end with green or yellow mucous – this does not imply another infection or sinus problems. If these symptoms last more than 2 -3 weeks, or fever persists beyond the acute phase of the cold you should bring your child to his/her pediatrician for evaluation. If your child is acting very sick, regardless of the presence of fever, he should be seen by his Doctor.

Usually your child will be contagious for about 1-2 days prior to the illness (you, of course, will not be aware of this) until 1-2 days beyond the onset of fever (as long as it returns to normal) and, of course should be held out of school until no fever for 24 hrs.

If you are considering taking your child to family parties over this holiday season, use the criteria mentioned to return to school as a guide. If one of the relatives has an underlying immunologic dysfunction; cancer, cancer treatment, long term use of steroids, etc. this may require further preventative measures and your relative should consult his/her Doctor.

This is a very common issue and you, as parents, should be aware of the differences and significance of these situations mentioned above.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Skoloff received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his medical degree from The Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He is a past Vice Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, a past Chairman of the Infection Control Committee at the Loudoun Hospital Center and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In his 41 years as a practicing pediatrician he has kept hundreds of kids and families healthy and safe and plans to continue to do so for years to come. Dr. Joe believes strongly in the combined power of parent and physician working together for the health of their children. He is an advocate for children everywhere and and adheres strongly to the principles of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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