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Children's Wisconsin viral season COVID-19 RSV flu

Sniffle season: How to identify and treat common viral illnesses

With school in full swing, and kids in close contact with their classmates, it is not unusual for viruses to be on the rise this time of year. With recent, post-pandemic viral seasons being so unpredictable, it can be difficult to determine which viral infection your child may be battling. In addition, this can make it challenging to know how best to take care of your family. Here is a breakdown of some of the more common viral season illnesses we as pediatric experts see this time of the year and how to best manage.

The common cold

The congestion, runny nose and sneezing of the common cold (also known as a “head cold” or “URI,” which stands for upper respiratory infection) are all too familiar to parents. Other symptoms may include cough, low-grade fevers and decreased appetite. Some children may have reduced energy levels while other children, despite having a runny nose and cough, may remain in good spirits. We use the term “common cold” because the average child can have up to 8 to 10 colds in a given year. A typical cold can last anywhere from 7 to 10 even up to 14 days. This means that it is not unusual for a young child to have cold symptoms for 100 days out of year. 

What does treatment of the common cold look like?

Typically, the common cold can be treated at home with “supportive care.” Supportive care means you support your little one through their illness. This type of home care consists of ensuring your little is staying hydrated, resting, getting an extra dose or two of snuggles and TLC. Over-the-counter pain and fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen may make your child more comfortable. For infants with heavy nasal congestion and runny nose, using a nose sucker will also offer relief. Lastly, use of a humidifier may help your child sleep better at night. The viruses that cause the common cold will not respond to antibiotic therapy. Using antibiotics when they are not effective increases the risk of allergic reactions, upset stomach and bacterial resistance to these medications.

When to seek treatment for the common cold

As mentioned above, most common colds can be managed at home with comfort care. The following should be seen by their health care provider for the common cold:

  • Young infants, especially those who were born premature, should be seen early in the course of their illness

  • Children who are especially fussy or those who have had high fevers for more than a few days

  • Children with underlying health issues

  • Children who are noted to have wheezing and/or shortness of breath

  • Children with worsening cold symptoms after 7 to 10 days of illness


The “flu” is another common viral illness caused by a virus known as influenza. The signs and symptoms of the flu typically come on rather quickly, as opposed to the viruses that cause the common cold that seem to creep up on us. Signs and symptoms of the flu include but are not limited to fatigue, stomach upset, body aches, chills, high fever, sore throat, decreased appetite and cough and congestion. In a nutshell, children with the flu often feel worse compared to those with the common cold. It should be noted that the flu caused by influenza is different than “the stomach flu,” which is a common viral illness that shows up in the form of vomiting and diarrhea.

What does flu treatment look like?

Prevention is the most effective way to avoid the flu. The specific flu virus changes each season, so even though you may have had the flu or been vaccinated in the past, you can contract it again. It is important to get your flu vaccination every year to protect yourself against the virus. The flu vaccine is safe and recommended for everyone older than 6 months old. When kids do get the flu, they will often recover over time with non-prescription treatment such as fever-reducing medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, lots of fluids and rest. Unlike the common cold, there are specific medications that may offer some relief of flu symptoms. These medications are often reserved for high-risk patients such as infants, pregnant women, elderly patients and those underlying health issues such as asthma.

When to seek treatment for the flu?

Again, most healthy children do not require testing or specific treatment for the flu. They should stay home until they are fever free for 24 hours. You should see your child’s health care provider for concerns related to the flu for the following:

  • Children 2 years old and younger

  • Children with underlying health issues

  • If your child has fast or hard breathing

  • If your child is especially fussy or irritable

  • If you child is not drinking fluids well or if you child is having multiple rounds of vomiting and you are concerned about possible dehydration

  • If your child has sudden behavioral changes, markedly low energy or muscle pain that affects their ability to walk

  • If you are concerned!


Respiratory syncytial virus, or as we prefer to say, RSV, is a very common cause of respiratory illness in all age groups. It is so common that ALL children will have had an RSV illness at least once by their 2nd birthday. For the majority of children older than age 2, RSV looks like a common cold. Unfortunately, for young infants, especially premature infants, children with underlying health condition and the elderly, RSV can lead to a serious respiratory illness that involves the lower respiratory tract. In young infants, RSV bronchiolitis is the leading cause of hospitalization. Bronchiolitis is an illness unique to babies. It may start out with mild cough and congestion but within a few days may lead to faster or harder breathing with wheezing and worsening cough. RSV spreads easily when people with the infection cough or sneeze. It also resides on hard surfaces such as door knobs or railings. Like many viruses, it spreads easily in daycare and school environments, which is what makes kids so susceptible to it.

What does RSV treatment look like?

For most, a suspected RSV illness can be managed at home with the same type of supportive care we recommend for the common cold: fluids, rest, nasal suctioning, the humidifier, over-the-counter pain and fever-reducing medications and patience. Most children will recover from an RSV illness within two weeks but others may experience a cough for up to three weeks. For our younger infants, prevention is key. One way to prevent RSV infection is through vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently approved vaccinations for pregnant women, elderly patients and for young infants. We encourage you to discuss this option with your health care team.

When to seek treatment for RSV

Unlike with the flu, we do not have specific medications to treat an RSV-related illness and therefore your pediatrician will not routinely test for RSV. Please see your child’s primary care provider or utilize Children’s Wisconsin walk-in and online urgent care services for the following reasons:

  • Your child is not drinking well due to cough or congestion

  • Your child’s breathing is fast or labored

  • Your child has been experiencing high fevers for more than a few days
  • You child has been especially fussy

  • Any concerns that worry you as a parent!

Call 911 or seek out emergency care if your child

  • Has difficulty breathing — warning signs include being able to see your baby’s ribs as they breathe or noticing a pale or blue tint to their lips.

  • Your baby is sluggish

  • Your baby is having pauses in their breathing


We know it is frustrating to still be dealing with COVID-19, but with the recent Eris variant on the rise, it is important to continue taking necessary precautions to minimize disruptions to your family’s lives. Continue to monitor for upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, cough and sore throat. Loss of smell and taste are possible with newer variants, though they are less common. Those who are immunocompromised or have other pre-existing medical conditions such as lung disease, diabetes, congenital heart defects or sickle cell disease are at a higher risk of all viruses, including COVID-19.

How do I protect my household from COVID-19?

  • Get vaccinated. It is important to get your child’s COVID-19 booster before infections spike.

  • Get tested. If anyone in your family develops cold-like symptoms, it is best practice to take a precautionary at-home COVID-19 test.

  • Reduce the spread by staying home and wearing a mask around others if you are showing symptoms.

  • Follow the CDC guidelines if you know you have been exposed to COVID-19.

When and where should I seek care?

It can be difficult to know when and where to seek treatment. If you have the Children’s Wisconsin App (and if you don’t, you should download it for free), you can utilize the symptom checker to help determine if your child needs to be seen by a health care provider and, if so, the best place to take them. As a general rule of thumb, utilize urgent care services for sickness and illnesses after hours that can’t wait until your primary care office has opened. This is an appropriate care option for symptoms including rash, fever, cold and cough, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.

Visit an emergency department for more serious symptoms, such as:

  • Altered consciousness

  • Severe headache

  • Seizure

  • Difficulty breathing

Children’s Wisconsin is always here for your family when you need us. The Children's Wisconsin Emergency Department is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We offer urgent care at six clinics located throughout Southeastern Wisconsin available for walk-in and video visits.

The most important practices parents, teachers and caregivers can implement to prevent the spread of these illnesses are:

  • Encourage frequent hand washing.

  • Teach children to cover their noses and mouths when they sneeze and cough.

  • Avoid sending kids to school when they are sick.

  • Get vaccinated whenever possible.

With viral season in high gear, please make sure to review our visitor guidelines for up-to-date information prior to visiting any Children’s Wisconsin locations.