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Children’s respiratory infections can last up to three weeks

23 January 2019

Children’s respiratory infection symptoms, including runny nose, dry cough and sore throat, can seem never-ending. Researchers from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care have found that it can take up to three weeks for 90 per cent of children’s respiratory infection symptoms to resolve, with one in 12 parents seeking help from their GP. 

Little girl coughs into tissue

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unit in Evaluation of Interventions and published in Annals of Family Medicine, also found that parents reported that lower respiratory infection symptoms, such as a wet cough and wheeze, lasted longer than upper respiratory infection symptoms, such as a runny nose and sore throat.

The researchers used a novel online study design to follow 485 children in 331 families in Bristol as they fell ill with respiratory infections. It took 23 days for 90 per cent of children to recover. Overall, the average duration of symptoms was nine days.

For children three years or younger, symptoms lasted on average 11 days compared to seven days for older children. Among children with only upper respiratory symptoms, the most persistent was runny nose, while the fastest symptom to resolve was earache. 

The findings will be useful to GPs and public health professionals when advising parents when to consult, and may help reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescribing.

Professor Alastair Hay from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care said: “It can be difficult for parents to know when to consult their GP when their child has respiratory infection symptoms. These findings could help support them in knowing when to seek help. Also, this is one of only a few studies to measure respiratory infection symptoms and subsequent consulting rates as they arise in the community. This gives us a more accurate estimate of how likely parents are to consult their GP. Future research may use this evidence for interventions that will help parents know if and when to consult, which could help prevent unnecessary health service and antibiotic use.”

Paper: Respiratory tract infections in children in the community: prospective online inception cohort study. Alastair D Hay et al. Annals of Family Medicine.


Further information

About the Centre for Academic Primary Care

The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol is a leading centre for primary care research in the UK, one of nine forming the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. It sits within Bristol Medical School, an internationally recognised centre of excellence for population health research and teaching. Follow us on Twitter: @capcbristol.

About the National Institute for Health Research

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.
The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.

This work uses data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support and would not have been possible without access to this data. The NIHR recognises and values the role of patient data, securely accessed and stored, both in underpinning and leading to improvements in research and care. www.nihr.ac.uk/patientdata