Aim: Acute respiratory illnesses (ARI) impose massive economic burden on health services. The growing costs, limited benefits of pharmacotherapeutic agents, and alarming rise in antibiotic resistance poses a major health challenge. Analysis of the nature and burden of ARI through well-designed epidemiologic studies will help in the development of a uniform public health approach to identify methods to reduce disease transmission and maximise prevention strategies. The aim of this study was to analyse the nature and magnitude of the burden of ARI encountered by a cohort of children in the first 5 years of life.Methods: This community-based prospective study of ARI followed a cohort of children from birth until 5 years of age. Information on all episodes of ARI encountered, and their management, was collected through daily symptom diary and fortnightly telephone calls.Results: Four episodes of ARI/year were reported in the first 2 years and 2-3 episodes/year between 2 and 5 years. The majority were upper respiratory infections. 53% had at least one lower respiratory infection in the first year. For the majority, symptoms lasted 1-2 weeks. 53% were treated with antitussives or cough mixtures, 44% with paracetamol and 23% with antibiotics. A total of 46% of the episodes presented to a family physician, with younger children and those with lower respiratory infection more likely to seek attention.Conclusion: ARI are common in childhood and although symptoms may last for 4 weeks, the majority resolve spontaneously. Use of medication does not appear to significantly alter the course or duration of symptoms of ARI.