Pediatric doctors answer common questions about cold and flu symptoms


At what point does a child’s cough warrant a visit to the doctor? Pediatric emergency physicians frequently hear questions like this during and outside of cold and flu season. We spoke with UChicago Medicine pediatric emergency doctors Princy George, MD and Alison Tothy, MD to answer these common questions.

UChicago Medicine: What should I do at home if my child has a cough?

George and Tothy: Do not use over-the-counter cough syrups or cold medications for children younger than six. These can be harmful to your child. Call or visit your doctor for advice on over-the-counter medications if your child is older than six.

You can try a teaspoon of honey if your child is older than one year old to soothe the throat. Do not use honey in a child under one year of age.

Bulb suctions can help infants breathe more comfortably. You can also try a humidifier.

When should I bring my child to the ER for a cough or cold?

Come to the emergency department if your child is having any difficulty breathing or call 911. This means they are using muscles in the neck or chest or belly to breathe or breathing faster than normal.

If your child is having decreased wet diapers and refusing to drink because of the cold, your child may need to be seen by a doctor. Call your pediatrician to further discuss your child’s symptoms so they can advise you whether or not to see a doctor.

Any tips for using a bulb suction?

Suctioning with a bulb syringe is good for infants that have nasal congestion. Make sure to use saline (salt water) drops and gently suction. Too much suctioning can cause swelling and irritation, so limit suctioning to three to four times per day.

When should I be worried about a fever?

If your child is a newborn, they need to be seen by your pediatrician or in the emergency department for a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Call your pediatrician if your child has a fever. He or she can help you decide where they need to be seen.

What do I do about a fever?

If your child feels warm, then you should measure their temperature. You can use any over-the-counter thermometer. For a newborn or an infant, the most accurate temperature is rectal. Anything greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is a fever.

You can treat a fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). If your child is under 6 months old you should use Tylenol.

What are ways I can prevent my child from getting a cold?

Most of the cold viruses we see are spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking or breathing out so this may be hard to control. Practice good hand washing and use hand sanitizer.

What can I do about the flu virus?

The best way to protect you, your family and others is to get the flu vaccine. It’s important to get it early, since it takes a while to take effect, but you can still get it now. Tamiflu is an approved medication for the flu virus and is sometimes recommended for certain children. This medication may only shorten the course of the flu by a day. Common side effects include nausea and vomiting. You can ask your doctor about the use of Tamiflu.

What are the biggest takeaways for parents and caregivers?

Practice good hand washing, call your pediatrician to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor and get your flu shot!

Alison Tothy, MD

Alison Tothy, MD

Alison Tothy, MD, is associate professor of pediatrics in the pediatric emergency medicine department at Comer Children’s.

Learn more about Dr. Tothy