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A virus is a germ that causes infections, such as the common cold, bronchiolitis, tonsillitis, ear infections, influenza, mumps and chickenpox. There are hundreds of different viruses.
Colds are very common in healthy children and on average preschool children get at least six colds per year. It is common for healthy children to have up to 12 viral illnesses per year in the first few years of life. It is also common for children to get sick from one virus shortly after getting better from a different one, so it can seem they are sick all the time. As children get older, the frequency of catching viral illnesses usually reduces.
Viruses can easily spread when children have close contact with each other. Most viruses are mild, and the best treatment is rest at home.
If your child has a virus, they may show a variety of symptoms, including:
While most viruses are mild in children, infants under three months of age may become very ill quickly and need to be assessed by a doctor.
Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. The best treatment is rest at home to allow your child’s immune system to fight the virus.
Here are some simple measures that can make your child more comfortable:
Your child is likely to feel better in a few days, but may be unwell for up to two weeks. A cough can linger for several weeks.
Most rashes are mild and do not cause your child any distress, although some rashes can cause a lot of itching. Talk to your local pharmacist about treatments that can help relieve itchy rashes. A rash often lasts a few days before going away on its own. Sometimes a rash appears when a fever goes away. When this rash appears, it means the child is getting better. See our fact sheet Rashes.
If your child is not improving after 48 hours, or is getting worse, take them to see your GP. Also see your GP if your child has any of the following:
Seek immediate care from your doctor or a hospital emergency department if your child:
Sometimes viruses can trigger asthma (if your child has a diagnosis of asthma) or a wheeze (whistling sound while breathing). If this happens, treat the asthma as you normally would. If the wheeze is new and your child is having difficulty breathing, take them to see your GP.
A virus can spread from person to person in tiny droplets from the nose (sneezing or a runny nose) and mouth (saliva or a cough). Viruses can also spread via vomit or faeces (poo), especially when someone has diarrhoea.
There is usually a delay between when a child is exposed to the virus and when they develop the illness. This delay is generally a few days, but some viruses may take up to two or three weeks before symptoms appear.
Good hygiene reduces the chance of getting viruses or passing them onto others. Good hygiene includes:
If your child is unwell with a virus, keep them home from child care, kindergarten or school until they are well again.
It is just about impossible to prevent your child from catching viruses, but you can help keep your child’s immune system in good shape by ensuring they have a balanced diet and plenty of sleep. Most children do not need to take vitamins on a daily basis. It is important to be up to date with your child’s immunisations to prevent viruses such as measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox (varicella).
See these related Kids Health Info fact sheets for more information:
Do I need to see a doctor to have my child’s virus diagnosed?
If your child is only experiencing mild symptoms that are relieved by paracetamol or ibuprofen, and they seem to be getting better after 48 hours, there is no need to visit a doctor. Often, it is very difficult to determine which particular virus your child has, and it doesn’t matter anyway, as treatment is the same – rest at home, and no antibiotics, as antibiotics do not help viruses.
What natural remedies can I give my child to help them feel better when they have a cold?
We do not recommend giving treatments – whether medical or
natural – to children without professional medical advice. As outlined in this
fact sheet, you can usually care for your child at home when they have a cold
by giving them plenty of fluids, allowing them to rest and providing simple
analgesia (e.g. paracetamol) if they are uncomfortable.
Over-the-counter products such as vitamins or supplements (e.g.
vitamin C, multivitamins) are not necessary. These products generally have no
or limited scientific evidence to prove their effectiveness in preventing or
treating viruses such as colds.
Remedies that are
usually passed down in families (e.g. staying warm, avoiding going to bed with
wet hair, not going outside with bare feet or wet hair and staying indoors) have not been proven to prevent colds. These were developed
before it was discovered that colds are caused by viruses.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine and Infectious Diseases departments and Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed July 2019.
Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.