Flu, colds, coughs and croup - how to tell them apart

Kinderling News & Features

The Raising Children Network estimates that children, before going to school, will get up to six colds a year. How can we tell the differences between various lurgies a child will inevitably get? 

GP Dr Natalie Caristo gives us all the differentiations we need to know. 

What does a cold look like?

What we call a head cold is what most children normally experience. 

Natalie says symptoms include a fever, a runny nose, a sore throat, a disinterest in food and in general, children not being not their usual, active selves. 

“A child with a cold [might take] some Panadol and Nurofen, will perk up and be okay for a little while and then potentially might need another dose if the symptoms come back,” she says. 

“Predominantly when a child has a cold, it’s an upper respiratory tract infection and some of that mucus that’s in the nose can drip down the back of throat and cause a cough.” 

How are flu symptoms different? 

Natalie says that it comes down to a cluster of flu symptoms. 

“A child that has influenza or the actual flu usually is a lot more lethargic, listless, they tend to have all the aches and pains that adults would,” she says. 

The severity is a lot worse than a cold. 

Listen to Natalie on Kinderling Conversation: 

What is croup? 

“Croup is inflammation of the vocal chords, so a child with croup will have a hoarse voice and the barking or seal-like cough,” Natalie says. “It’s another type of virus, but hones in on that area in the back of the throat.” 

“In an adult, we call it laryngitis, we just don’t get the cough with it.”

You don’t have to go to emergency if there’s not a struggle to breathe, “children with a barking cough can be treated at home.” 

Natalie says that going out into the cold makes the cough worse, and it’s also why the coldest time of night, around 1am, is when croup most often occurs. 

What helps a cough?

If it’s just a cough, cough syrup is not necessarily the way to treat it. 

“There are lots of cough syrups on the market and generally these days they’re not recommended for children under the age of six,” says Natalie. “There are some more natural products available, which can be given to younger children. My advice on this is that sometimes they’re worth a try. They might break up the cough and help the child pass some of the mucus, but generally there’s no consensus on one being better than the other or whether or not any of them actually work much at all.” 

At night, when they’re lying on their backs, that mucus is trickling down from nose into throat, and this is when a cough increases. 

“I normally recommend some saline up the nose. If you can actually clear the nasal passages, and get them to swallow all that mucus, that might buy you a little bit of time. Then it builds up again so you may have to repeat the process overnight but it removes the mucus from the back of the throat and back into the stomach.” 

If your child has a cough if it goes on for more than a day or two, Natalie recommends they should be seeing a doctor. They can listen to the lungs and determine whether or not it is just an upper respiratory tract infection, or if it has moved lower where they could develop crackles in their lungs. 

If your child at any point changes colour, stops breathing, goes blue, you must take them to hospital.