Besides giving guidance on growth and diet and development, one of our most frequent jobs as pediatricians to to figure out the source of a child’s runny nose. The two most common causes of a runny nose are a viral infection and environmental allergies. As we transition from winter into spring, telling the difference between the two can become a little challenging.
We’re all familiar with the feeling of having a cold: the cloudy or yellow nasal drainage, the drip of mucous down the back of the throat, the congestion, the cough, and sometimes achiness or headache. The vast majority of the time, these colds are caused by viruses that need to just run their course without too much intervention from us. We need to make sure that children with colds stay hydrated by drinking lots of fluids, and we can help them feel better by turning on a humidifier, steaming them in the bathroom, or giving ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed. A spoonful of honey has been shown to help with the symptoms from mucous in the throat as well!
What children with colds don’t need are antibiotics. Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help at all and could actually cause harm through side-effects like diarrhea or allergic reactions. Needless antibiotics can also clear the body of healthy bacteria to make room for stronger, more resistant illness-causing bacteria. However, sometimes as a result of a cold, a child could get an ear infection, a sinus infection, or pneumonia, in which case antibiotics might be necessary.
Allergies can be another cause of runny nose. As opposed to people with colds, children with environmental allergies causing a runny nose tend not to feel sick. They’re also more likely to have itchy eyes, sneezing, a clear runny nose, and an itchy throat. Allergies can be easily treated all day long with over-the-counter antihistamines such as Zyrtec or Claritin. Sometimes using a daily steroid nasal spray like Flonase or Nasonex can be helpful. Be sure to talk to your doctor about how to treat suspected allergies.
As the cold & influenza season draws to a close, make sure your children get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and wash their hands!
Written by: Dr. Andy Bernstein