What is a viral infection?
Viruses usually enter the body through the nose or mouth, and then spread throughout the body from there. They can affect any organ which is why they can cause such a wide variety of symptoms.
The most common manifestation of a viral infection is an upper respiratory infection, also known as the common cold.
A cold is most commonly caused by viruses and children get a lot of them – as many as 6 to 8 per year – especially when they’re young. Viruses are everywhere and it’s virtually impossible for your child to avoid getting them. It’s all part of building a healthy, robust immune system.
Symptoms of a viral infection can include all or some of the following:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Decreased appetite
- Diarrhea and/or vomiting
Treatment for Viral Infections
Viral infections, in most cases, will resolve on their own after 5 to 7 days.
Keep your child comfortable during that time. Use tylenol or motrin for fevers, pain, or discomfort. Make sure they drink plenty of fluids. Eating is less important. A decrease in appetite is not unusual. Let them rest as much as they want to.
It’s normal for them to play less and instead spend that energy getting better. Cough medications and decongestants have not been proven to be helpful in children with viral upper respiratory infections but honey and sucking candies can help a cough.
A note on fevers: Fever is the body’s normal immune response to fighting off infection. In the case of a viral illness, it is a sign that your child’s body is doing what it should. The fever itself is not harmful. While some children look uncomfortable with fever, appear flushed, and feel clammy, others look completely fine. Treat the fever to keep your child comfortable and to help them drink fluids. Focus more on how sick your child looks than how high their fever might be.
A note on antibiotics: viral infections cannot and should not be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are reserved for bacterial infections and will do nothing against a viral infection. In fact, they might even be harmful if your child has a reaction to the medicine.
Some supportive things you can do:
For a Runny Nose With Lots of Discharge: Blow the Nose
The nasal mucus and discharge is washing germs out of the nose and sinuses.
Blowing the nose is all that’s needed.
For a Blocked Nose: Help Clear Congestion
- Use saline (salt water) nose drops or spray to loosen up the dried mucus. If you don’t have saline, you can use a few drops of bottled water or clean tap water.
- Run a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where your child can sit to help clear stuffiness
- For children 8 years of age and older, saline sinus irrigation can provide better relief of congestion.
Keep Your Child Hydrated:
- Try to get your child to drink lots of fluids. It will thin out the mucus discharge from the nose and loosen up any phlegm in the lungs.
Avoid Dry Air:
- If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Dry air makes nasal mucus thicker.
Soothe Raw or Irritated Nose Area:
If the nose is irritated from blowing, dab petroleum jelly on the skin under the nose to soothe rawness.
Soothe a Sore Throat:
- Give hard candy or cough drops to relieve sore throat (only for kids older than 6)
- Sip warm chicken broth.
- Some children prefer cold foods such as popsicles or ice cream.
- Warm salt water gargles
Relieve Aches and Pains
- Run a warm bath or use a heating pad to soothe aches and pains
- Use tylenol or motrin as needed
Check in with K if…
- You’re not sure if your child’s infection is just viral
- You have questions about what supportive care you can offer
- You’re not sure when your child can go back to school
See a doctor in person if…
- If fever last more than 5 days
- If congestion or runny nose lasts for more than 10 days
- If your child develops ear pain
- If your child looks really sick with a concerning decrease in activity level even when the fever is down
- If your child isn’t drinking enough and you’re concerned for dehydration
- If your child has a bad cough, chest pain, or difficulty breathing
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.