No parent likes to see his or her child feeling miserable. And in children, the common cold can mean a week or two of runny-nosed, cough-induced, scratchy-throated misery. But even though we long to do something to make everything OK again, curing kids’ colds primarily requires time and a little TLC.

Most parents know that colds are viral infections, impervious to the effects of antibiotics, which are effective only for bacterial illnesses. Allergies may sometimes be mistaken for colds—they also cause sneezing, runny noses and coughing due to sinus drainage—but allergies tend to be worse after being outside, include itchy eyes, last for several weeks, and lack the fever and body aches that are common cold symptoms, says Dr. Gabriel Usry, a family physician with Tri-County Family Practice and on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“Often children with allergies have parents with allergies, and parents will notice they are also suffering when the children develop seasonal allergies,” adds Dr. Leigh Gartland, a pediatrician with SSM Medical Group at St. Mary’s Health Center.

“Runny nose, congestion and minor cough that resolve after 14 days will usually be a viral process. If fever is persisting beyond four days, symptoms are worsening after four days, or the symptoms go on past 14 days, sometimes bacteria are involved,” says Dr. Gregory Finn, a Mercy Clinic pediatrician. At this point, a visit to the doctor is a good idea to sort out exactly what’s causing the illness and treat it accordingly. “Signs of complications, such as earache or wheezing, should prompt a call (to the doctor). Anytime you are worried about your child, or they seem to have breathing difficulty, you should call.”

Some physicians warn parents to avoid over-the-counter cold medicines, even those that are advertised as ‘pediatric,’ especially for children younger than 6. “The main problem with cold medicines is their lack of effectiveness,” Finn says. “Some do cause hyperactivity, strange behavior, rapid heart rate or extreme sleepiness. It is best to use a humidifier when the air is dry, or saline nose drops with occasional gentle suctioning for infants.”

Gartland recommends against combination products that contain antihistamines, decongestants, cough suppressants and fever reducers in a single dose. “I recommend Claritin (loratadine) or Zyrtec (cetirizine) for nasal drainage and congestion. Most children tolerate these products well,” she says. “Also, you may use Benadryl (diphenhydramine), but it has to be given every four to six hours as opposed to once daily, like the Claritin and Zyrtec.” For coughing, Gartland recommends a single dose of Delsym at night.

“Children younger than age 4 are more likely to have a side effect from the antihistamines, like Claritin and Zyrtec, but these products are approved for this age group and are often worth a trial; rarely do we have any significant side effects. More concerning would be the use of the multi-ingredient products, which can have significant side effects of increased heart rate and blood pressure,” she says.

Usry adds that if the child is healthy and doesn’t have any other medical problems, Tylenol or Motrin, as appropriate for the child’s weight, is safe and will help control fever and its associated muscle aches and general malaise. Keeping the child well hydrated also can help. “Normal children will get several colds in a winter,” Finn says. However, ‘in children, no medicine, vitamin or supplement will prevent a cold or make it go away faster.’ Bring on the TLC.