Acute respiratory infections in children

Most acute1 respiratory infections in children are caused by viruses, and there are hundreds of different viruses that can cause these infections. These viruses cause illnesses such as the common cold, influenza (otherwise known as ‘the flu’), COVID-19 and more. They are common in children, and some children may experience multiple illnesses each year.

Some common viruses that can cause respiratory infections include:

  • influenza virus
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • rhinovirus, parainfluenza virus
  • adenovirus
  • human metapneumovirus
  • enterovirus
  • SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19

Symptoms of an acute respiratory infection

Common symptoms of acute respiratory infections can include:

  • coughing or sneezing
  • a sore throat
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • fever
  • facial or ear pain
  • red and/or watery eyes
  • muscle or body aches
  • tiredness
  • difficulty breathing
  • feeling generally unwell, and
  • vomiting and/or diarrhoea

How respiratory viruses are spread

Respiratory viruses can spread through tiny droplets or aerosols of an unwell person when they talk, cough or sneeze. These droplets may be breathed in by those nearby, which is a higher risk in crowded, enclosed spaces. 

Viruses can spread when someone has direct contact with an unwell person. Some viruses can also be spread by indirect contact if a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their face.

What to do if your child has an acute respiratory infection

Most children with a viral acute respiratory infection will have a mild illness and can recover at home with rest and fluids. Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics.

If your child has respiratory symptoms, fever, or other symptoms of COVID-19, follow the information on testing and what to do if your child tests positive for COVID-19 on the ACT COVID-19 website. 

Testing for the other viruses that cause acute respiratory infections, including influenza (the flu), is only recommended in discussion with a health professional who will provide you with a valid pathology referral. We recommend that you book an appointment with your GP who will provide you with tailored health advice and what to do.

Even if your child receives a negative COVID-19 test result, they should still stay home and minimise contact with people outside the home until they are feeling much better. This includes staying home from school and avoiding recreational events and community gatherings. 

If you would like to seek medical advice about caring for your child, there are many ways you can do this:

  • call or book a telehealth appointment with your regular GP. Telehealth appointments can be via video or phone call while you are at home. You can also visit the HealthDirect website to find and book an appointment with a telehealth service
  • you can visit a free Walk-in Centre for a health assessment for your child. They’re open 7 days a week from 7.30am to 10pm and care for anyone over2 years of age, and you do not need an appointment. You can find your nearest Walk In Centre on the Canberra Health Services website
  • the COVID-19 clinic at the Garran Surge Centre is available for people who have tested positive to COVID-19 and need non-urgent care
  • call HealthDirect on 1800 022 222. HealthDirect allows you to speak to a registered nurse for health information, available 24 hours a day

If you are worried about your child, including if they have any of the following features, you should seek immediate care from a hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000):

  • having trouble breathing
  • breathing very quickly
  • pale or difficult to wake
  • turning blue

How to prevent acute respiratory infections

The following steps should be taken to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses:

Staying home if you’re unwell

If your child is unwell, they should still stay home and minimise contact with others until they are feeling much better to prevent the spread of illness to others. They should do this even if they test negative to COVID-19.

Practising good respiratory hygiene

Good respiratory hygiene practices include:

  • washing your hands regularly for 20 to 30 seconds
  • using hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not available (note hand sanitiser does not replace washing your hands after using the bathroom)
  • use soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough into your elbow when you cough and sneeze
  • throw used tissues into a bin immediately and wash your hands
  • open a window or use air conditioning for good airflow in shared spaces if the weather allows

Wearing a mask

People aged 12 years and over are strongly encouraged to wear a face mask when entering public indoor settings or where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing.

Mask wearing for children under 12 is at the discretion of the child and their parent or caregiver.

For more information, visit the face masks page on the ACT Health COVID-19 website.

Staying up to date with vaccinations

Keeping your child up to date with vaccinations, including influenza and COVID-19, is the most important way to protect them against serious respiratory illnesses.

All children aged 6 months to 5 years are eligible for free influenza vaccination each year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and over are also eligible for free influenza vaccination.

Some children are eligible to receive free COVID-19 vaccinations depending on their age.

For more information, visit the ACT Health:

Useful resources

1An acute illness is used to describe an illness or disease process which comes on very quickly, is severe, or occurs over a short period of time (Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, 2020).

Page last updated on: 22 Jul 2022