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Overview of Viral Respiratory Tract Infections in Children


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Dec 2019| Content last modified Dec 2019
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What are viral respiratory tract infections?

Your respiratory tract is your breathing passages. It includes your nose, throat, windpipe, and your lungs and their airways. Many viruses can infect your respiratory tract. Common viral respiratory tract infections include the common cold and flu.

Upper respiratory infections, such as colds and flu, affect mostly the nose and throat.

Lower respiratory infections, such as croup, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia, affect mostly the lungs and airways.

  • On average, children get 6 viral respiratory infections a year—the infections tend to spread from child to child in day care centers and schools

  • Viral respiratory tract infections cause a runny nose, cough, and scratchy throat

  • Most infections aren't severe, but some infections cause dangerous breathing problems

  • Washing hands helps prevent these infections from spreading

  • The flu vaccine prevents flu, but there aren't any vaccines for colds or other viral respiratory tract infections

What causes viral respiratory tract infections in children?

Many different viruses cause respiratory tract infections. Children get these infections from other children who are sick. Mucus from a sick child's runny nose is full of viruses. The mucus gets on children's hands and whatever the children touch gets covered with viruses. If healthy children touch something covered with viruses and then touch their nose or mouth, they can get the infection.

Viral respiratory tract infections spread easily among groups of children, such as children in child care centers or schools.

What are the symptoms of a viral respiratory tract infection?

Symptoms include:

  • Runny and stuffy nose

  • Cough

  • Scratchy throat

  • Sometimes fever

Often, viral respiratory infections trigger asthma attacks in children with asthma.

A severe infection can cause:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Fast breathing

  • Wheezing

When should my child see a doctor for a viral respiratory tract infection?

Healthy children with mild symptoms don't usually need to see a doctor.

  • See a doctor right away if your child is having trouble breathing

Take your child to a doctor if your child:

  • Isn't drinking

  • Has a fever

  • Isn't getting better after a few days

How can doctors tell if my child has a viral respiratory tract infection?

Doctors can tell from examining your child. Tests aren't usually needed.

How do doctors treat viral respiratory tract infections in children?

Doctors will have your child:

  • Rest

  • Drink fluids

  • Take acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil) for fever and aches

  • If your child is school-age, take decongestant medicine (babies and young children shouldn't take this medicine)

To ease symptoms in babies and young children, it may help to:

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier

  • Suction mucus from the baby's nose with a rubber suction bulb

Antibiotics won't help and aren't needed to treat viral respiratory tract infections.

How can I prevent a viral respiratory tract infection in my child?

To keep infections from spreading:

  • Wash your hands and your child's hands often

  • Keep sick children home from school or day care

  • Get the flu vaccine for all adults and children 6 months or older

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