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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children's coughs and colds can last up to two or three weeks and earaches may take a week to get better, according to a new review of past studies.
Researchers said they hope the findings help reassure both doctors and parents that respiratory symptoms can last "longer than previously appreciated" but typically don't require treatment.
"A lot of times, we just have to give it a bit more time," Dr. Sharon B. Meropol said.
Meropol, from Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, was not involved in the new research.
She said the findings are consistent with what she sees as a pediatrician.
For their review, Dr. Matthew Thompson from the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues analyzed the results of 48 studies of children with a respiratory tract infection.
Kids in those studies were treated with over-the-counter medicines, drug-free placebo pills or nothing. Researchers followed them to see when their symptoms went away.
Among children with earaches, 90 percent were better within seven to eight days of visiting a primary care doctor or the emergency room. Most kids with the common cold were better after 15 days, while it took 25 days for almost all children with a cough to be fully recovered.
Sore throats typically lasted anywhere from two to seven days, depending on the study.
The duration of earaches and common colds in particular was "considerably longer" than parents in the U.S. and UK are generally told, the researchers wrote in the journal BMJ.
Meropol said most children with coughs, colds and other respiratory tract infections don't need to see a doctor. With the exception of strep throat, those infections are typically caused by viruses.
"You can feel really crummy from a virus, but the symptoms of fever and runny, stuffy nose and cough by themselves aren't dangerous for the child," she told Reuters Health.
Tea with honey or nasal saline drops may help ease kids' symptoms, she said, but over-the-counter medicines often don't do much good for young people. Antibiotics also won't help if the culprit is a virus.
"Some people . . . think that if symptoms go on past a couple of days, the child needs antibiotics," Meropol said. But viruses don't respond to antibiotics, and the drugs may cause diarrhea or other side effects among children.
What's more, using antibiotics could have long-term implications by increasing the chance that bugs become resistant to the drugs, making future infections harder to treat.
"The take home message is that symptoms of many of these common respiratory tract infections may last a while and that prolonged symptoms do not necessarily mean that the child needs antibiotics or other medications," Dr. Theoklis Zaoutis told Reuters Health in an email.
Zaoutis is an infectious diseases specialist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and wasn't involved in the new review.
There are still some situations when children with respiratory symptoms do need to see a doctor, Meropol said.
That's when their symptoms keep getting worse, or don't start slowly getting better over time as expected. Kids who are having trouble breathing or have other serious symptoms also need to go to the doctor, she said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/J2NQ4A BMJ, online December 11, 2013.