Treating Runny and Stuffy Noses in Kids—What to Know

Every parent knows that children are no strangers to runny and stuffy noses. While these common symptoms are often caused by colds or allergies, they can still cause discomfort and annoyance for children and their parents.  

Discover ways to help your little ones clear their congested noses to help them find relief faster. 

What Causes Runny and Stuffy Noses?  

Just because a child has a runny nose, that doesn’t always mean they have a cold. It’s important to understand what causes runny and stuffy noses in children so you can help them avoid unnecessary discomfort. Common causes of a runny nose in children include:  

  • Viral infections: Common colds and viral infections are the leading cause of runny noses in children. These infections can lead to nasal congestion, sneezing and a runny nose. 
  • Allergies: Allergies to pollen, dust mites, pet dander or certain foods can trigger runny noses and congestion in children. 
  • Environmental irritants: Exposure to irritants such as tobacco smoke, pollution or strong odors can also lead to nasal congestion and runny noses. 

How Can You Treat a Runny and Stuffy Nose?  

While there’s no cure for the common cold, flu, allergies and other common causes of congestion, there are many ways to treat these symptoms in children. 

There are many options for treating a runny or stuffy nose in a child. Such options include:  

  • Hydration: Keeping your child well-hydrated is crucial. Offer them plenty of fluids like water, clear soups and herbal teas. Hydration helps to thin mucus, making it easier to expel while relieving congestion. 
  • Humidification: Use a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s bedroom, especially during dry seasons or in areas with low humidity. Humidifiers help maintain optimal moisture levels in the air, preventing nasal passages from drying out and becoming irritated. 
  • Saline nasal drops: Saline nasal drops are a gentle and effective way to clear congestion. You can administer saline drops to your child’s nostrils to loosen mucus and ease breathing. These drops are safe and readily available at most drugstores. 
  • Elevate the head: Elevating your child’s head while sleeping can help reduce nasal congestion. You can achieve this by placing a pillow under the mattress to create a slight incline, ensuring they sleep with their head elevated. 
  • Steam therapy: Steam can loosen mucus and clear nasal passages. You can create a "steam room" in your bathroom by running a hot shower and sitting with your child in the steamy environment for a few minutes. 
  • Allergen management: If allergies are the root cause, identify and reduce your child’s exposure to allergens. This may involve cleaning the house frequently, using allergen-proof covers for pillows and mattresses, and ensuring proper ventilation. 
  • Encourage rest: Rest is essential for the body’s natural healing process. Ensure your child gets enough sleep and avoids strenuous activities when they have a runny or stuffy nose. 

For older children, over-the-counter medications like antihistamines and decongestants can provide relief. However, speaking with a doctor before giving any medication to a child is essential. 

“Pharmacies carry so many different cold medications for children,” says Nicolina Warwin, M.D., assistant professor in Pediatrics at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Most pediatricians don't feel comfortable with children younger than six using over-the-counter medications for congestion and cough. Some of these medications can have alcohol in them. They can also have different ingredients that could cause behavioral changes in children too, so they’re not ideal or safe.” 

Always consult with your pediatrician if your child experiences severe discomfort or before using new medications.  

When to Seek Medical Attention 

While most cases of runny or stuffy noses in children can be managed at home, there are situations when you should seek medical attention: 

  • Persistent symptoms that don’t improve with home treatments 
  • High fever or severe pain 
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing 
  • Unusual or bloody discharge from the nose 

Runny and stuffy noses in children can be challenging, but with the right approach, they can be managed effectively. If your child has persistent congestion, it may be a sign of a more complex health problem.  

Find a pediatrician at Weill Cornell Medicine to help your child manage their respiratory health.  

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