How long do coughs and colds last in children? When should parents really worry about respiratory symptoms?

Recently, the British Medical Journal published an article on the expected duration of common respiratory tract infection related-symptoms, such as earaches, sore throats, and croup. They reviewed the existing scientific literature and identified about 50 papers that described clinical trials or observational studies of children with acute respiratory tract infections. After compiling and analyzing the data, researchers reported the average time symptoms are expected to last in 90% of children:

Symptom Expected duration in 90% of children (days)
Earache 7-8
Sore throat 2-7
Croup 2
Bronchiolitis 21
Acute cough 25
Common cold 15
Non-specific respiratory tract infections symptoms 16

The researchers hope to reduce parents’ anxiety by bridging the gap between how long parents think symptoms should last and how long they actually last. They encourage parents to speak with their child’s doctor about whether antibiotics are needed or if they could wait a few days. The data could also help doctors decide whether antibiotics are actually required. The researchers do caution parents to be mindful of the symptom’s severity and to bring the child to a doctor if there are other symptoms such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, even if the duration of symptoms falls within the expected range.

Thompson M, Vodicka TA, et al. Duration of symptoms of respiratory tract infections in children: systematic review. BMJ 2013;347:f7027.