New research can help clinicians better answer one of the most frequently asked questions by adults caring for children with respiratory tract infections: “How long will the symptoms last?”

Typically used estimates of the expected time course of symptoms of common respiratory tract infections are not always evidence-based. So Matthew J. Thompson, MPH, of the University of Washington, and colleagues, performed a systematic review of the literature, focusing on symptom duration of the most common respiratory tract infections in children presenting to primary-care settings: earache (acute otitis media), common cold, sore throat and cough.

The analysis of 23 randomized controlled trials and 25 observational studies showed that in 90% of children, earache resolved by seven to eight days, and the common cold by 15 days. Findings were published online in BMJ.

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The authors noted that information for patients distributed by the CDC describes earache as lasting for an average of two days and the common cold as lasting up to 14 days. 

The CDC puts the duration of sore throat at one to two weeks, and the duration of cough at two to eight weeks. Investigators found that in 90% of the children represented in the evaluated studies, sore throat resolved by two to seven days, croup by two days, bronchiolitis by 21 days, acute cough by 25 days, and nonspecific respiratory tract infection symptoms by 16 days.


  1. Thompson MJ et al. BMJ. 2013;347:f7027.