When your child has a runny nose, cough and fever, it can be hard to tell whether it’s just a common cold or a more severe illness like a sinus infection. Here are some tips to help you handle your child’s illness and know when your child should visit the pediatrician.

Know the odds. While colds are common, fewer than one in 15 children gets a bacterial sinus infection during or after a cold.

Differentiate the symptoms. Children with a cold have a runny nose with mucus that starts clear and then becomes cloudy or colored. Colds may include a fever that lasts one to two days, but symptoms improve on their own in 10 days. There are three types of sinusitis:

  • Persistent: Runny nose, daytime cough (can worsen at night) or both last for 10 days and do not improve.

  • Severe: Fever over 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit lasts for at least three days in a row. Mucus is thick and cloudy or colored.

  • Worsening: A cold starts to improve, but fever returns or daytime cough or runny nose gets worse.

Talk with your pediatrician about whether to medicate. Kids with persistent sinusitis can either be observed to see if they improve on their own, or they can take antibiotics if they are particularly uncomfortable. All kids with severe or worsening sinusitis should take antibiotics to help them recover faster.

Consider the drawbacks of antibiotics. Side effects of antibiotics can include vomiting, diarrhea, upset stomach, skin rash, allergic reactions or yeast infections.

And remember, whenever you have a question about your child’s illness, talk with your pediatrician.

© 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics. This Parent Plus may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.