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Colds in Babies

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KEY POINTS

  • A cold is an infection caused by a virus that may affect the nose, throat, ears, voice box, and upper airways. Colds are also called upper respiratory infections.
  • Follow the care advice from your healthcare provider. Keeping hands clean can also help slow the spread of viruses. Ask people who touch your baby to wash their hands first.
  • Ask your baby’s healthcare provider how to take care of your baby at home, what symptoms or problems you should watch for, and what to do if your baby has them.

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What are colds?

A cold is an infection caused by a virus. The virus usually affects the nose and throat, and it may affect the ears. A cold can also affect the tube that connects the middle ear and throat, as well as the windpipe, voice box, and upper airways. Colds are also called upper respiratory infections.

In a young baby, the air passages through the nose and between the ear and throat are small. Mucus can block these small passages during a cold and cause trouble breathing. Most babies also don’t eat well when it’s hard for them to breathe.

What is the cause?

Many different viruses can cause colds. The infection spreads when viruses are passed between people by sneezing or coughing. Your baby may have caught the virus from another person or from touching something with the virus on it, such as a toy at day care.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually start 1 to 3 days after contact with a cold virus and can last 1 to 2 weeks. Symptoms may include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Mild fever
  • Hoarseness, which may sound like a muffled cry
  • Decreased appetite

Cold and flu symptoms are similar. The difference is that when your child has the flu, the symptoms start within a few hours and may include a fever. The symptoms of a cold develop more slowly.

How is it diagnosed?

Your baby's healthcare provider will ask about your baby’s symptoms and medical history and examine your baby. A sample of fluid from your baby’s nose or throat may be tested if your provider thinks something other than a cold is causing your baby's symptoms. In most cases, no tests are needed.

How is it treated?

Antibiotic medicines can kill bacteria, but not viruses. Colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotic medicine does not help.

You can do nasal rinses to help clear your baby’s air passages and help your baby breathe.

  • Put 1 or 2 drops of saline solution into each nostril, one nostril at a time.
  • Gently remove the mucus with a bulb syringe about a minute later. A bulb syringe is a small rubber suction tool that you can buy in the baby section of most drug stores or grocery stores. Follow the directions on the package. Your healthcare provider can also show you how this is done. Other devices that can be used to suction your child’s mucus are also sold at drug stores and grocery stores.

You can buy saline solution or make your own. It is very important to use fresh saline solution because bacteria can grow in saline and bacteria can cause infections. If you are buying a saline solution, buy individual-use packs or buy a bottle and throw it away after using it.

To make your own saline solution:

Mix 8 ounces of water (1 measuring cup) with 1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized table salt and a pinch of baking soda. It is best to use lukewarm distilled, filtered, or previously boiled water. Having the right mix helps prevent irritation.

Make a fresh supply of saline solution and store it in a sealed, clean container. Every time you do a nasal rinse, pour a small amount of the solution into a separate container and draw it from there. Do not draw up the saline solution from the clean storage container. Make a fresh supply about every 3 days.

The way nasal saline rinses are done depends on the age and comfort level of the child.

How can I take care of my baby?

Follow the care advice from your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Use a cool mist humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer's instructions. It is important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Give your child nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen to treat pain and fever. Read the label carefully and give your child the correct dose as directed.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. Read the label and give as directed.
    • Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Read the label carefully and give your child the correct dose as directed. Do not give more doses than directed. To make sure you don’t give your child too much, check other medicines your child takes to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, your child should not take this medicine for more than 5 days.
  • Do not give cough and cold medicines to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, ask your healthcare provider before giving cough medicine. For children over the age of 6, you can give cough medicines, but they have not been proven to be helpful. Honey has been shown to help coughs but should not be given to children under 1 year because of the risk of botulism.
  • Keep your child away from smoke. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes is very harmful to children.

Ask your provider:

  • How long it will take your baby to recover
  • If there are activities your baby should avoid
  • How to take care of your baby at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your baby has them

Call your healthcare provider for any questions especially if your baby:

  • Is less than 3 months old
  • Was born prematurely
  • Has any problems with breathing or feeding
  • Seems to be in pain, especially with an earache

Make sure you know when your baby should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent colds?

  • The viruses that cause colds are spread from person to person, so try to avoid exposing your baby to people who have cold symptoms. Avoid crowded places like shopping malls or supermarkets, especially during the fall and winter months when many people have colds.
  • Keeping hands clean can also help slow the spread of viruses. Ask people who touch your baby to wash their hands first.
  • Keep surfaces clean, especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys. Some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or more on surfaces like tables, doorknobs, and cribs. Wipe them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the label.
Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-10-24
Last reviewed: 2019-03-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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