Baby health

What to do when baby gets a cold

Watery eyes? Stuffy nose? We've got the symptoms and treatments for your baby's first cold. Sniff!

By Sydney Loney
What to do when baby gets a cold

Watery eyes? Stuffy nose? We've got the symptoms and treatments for your baby's first cold. Sniff!

Watery eyes

Gently wiping red, watery eyes with a cool cloth or damp cotton balls and dimming the lights will make your baby more comfortable. Wash your hands often and thoroughly to protect against spreading a viral or bacterial infection, especially before and after touching your baby's face. Be especially careful to avoid spreading nasal discharge to the eyes, where it can cause a secondary infection. Eye infections are highly contagious, so don't touch your own face, either, without washing your hands first.

Call your doctor if: eye discharge is thick or yellow, baby develops a fever, or the white or lid of one or both eyes is hot, red or swollen

Cold and flu season takes its toll, with babies and small children even more susceptible to illness. A dad holds his baby girl, trying to comfort her in the midst of her sickness. RyanJLane/ Getty Images

Stuffy nose

Babies are nose breathers, says Denise Chapple, chief of paediatrics at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, BC, “which makes a runny nose extra hard on them.” Try using a saline nose spray to soften mucus, followed by a rubber suction bulb to clear nasal passages. “You probably can’t keep her nose clear all day, but doing it before a feed or nap may help,” says Chapple.

Call your doctor if: nasal discharge is thick and greenish for longer than 10 days.

Mother helping son to blow his nose at home filadendron/ Getty Images


Achy ears

Ear pulling means an ear infection, right? Maybe, but the biggest signs are fever and irritability, says Chapple. To give your baby some relief, treat her with acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tempra) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Check the dosage with your doctor.

Call your doctor if: your child is under six months (she may need an antibiotic), or is still uncomfortable, despite a dose of pain meds.

Mother with ear thermometer checking temperature filadendron/ Getty Images

Hacking cough

Over-the-counter cough medicines are a no-no for kids. “They just don’t work that well and there’s a potential for side effects,” says Chapple. So how do you treat a cough that’s keeping your little one up all night? A cool-mist humidifier soothes both cough and congestion. (Just be sure to disinfect it daily to reduce the risk of bacteria and mould. See Steam clean.)

Call your doctor if: your baby develops a harsh, barking cough, is wheezy or has difficulty breathing.

A mother holding child baby on the living room. The baby is sick having some cough LSOphoto/ Getty Images

Feeling feverish

If your baby's temperature is higher than 38.5°C (101.3°F), acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve fever symptoms. Removing extra blankets or clothing or dressing in lighter-weight clothing can also help lower her temperature—just make sure she doesn't get too cold. A lukewarm bath can help reduce fever, loosen mucous and soothe aches and pains to make her more comfortable. Avoid using ibuprofen for babies younger than six months old. Make sure all children with fevers stay well hydrated by offering extra fluids or ice pops frequently.

Call your doctor if: your infant is younger than six months, seems unusually lethargic or fussy, if their fever is higher than 38.9 C (102 F) or if the fever lasts longer than 48 hours.

Mother checking temperature of sick daughter Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/ Getty Images


Dry diaper

If routine diaper checks reveal your baby has been dry for several hours, she may be slightly dehydrated. Try an oral rehydration solution, which is available over the counter and contains a mix of water, salts and sugar.

Go to the nearest hospital if: she has fewer than four wet diapers in 24 hours, her lips and mouth are dry, or the soft spot on her head appears sunken.

Mother testing if diaper is too tight after changing. Guido Mieth/ Getty Images

Decreased appetite

A baby with a cold may not feel much like eating, but continue offering plenty of fluids. If congestion is making it hard to nurse, try feeding her with a syringe, suggests Chapple. Young babies should be encouraged to nurse or offered formula as often as they'd like. Older babies who have begun eating solid food can be offered clear fluids and hydrating foods such as diluted juice, gelatin, ice pops or fruit in addition to milk or formula.

An electrolyte formula made for children may be helpful and should be tried if your baby is not eating or has had vomiting or diarrhea. Do not offer regular sports drinks, as the excess sugar can cause diarrhea. Serve small amounts of bland foods more often than usual. Simple carbohydrates such as white bread, rice, crackers and pasta may work best if your baby has an upset tummy. Try to offer foods that you already know your baby likes, and don't panic if they stop eating much for a few days. Their appetite will recover when they're feeling better.

Call your doctor if: your infant steadfastly refuses to eat, or begins vomiting.

Small infant being a picky eater disliking the food nicoletaionescu/ Getty Images

Steam clean

Keep your humidifier bacteria-free by:

  • using distilled water (it releases fewer particles into the air than tap water)
  • emptying leftover water after every use
  • cleaning and disinfecting the water reservoir daily — following the manufacturer’s instructions
  • deep cleaning the humidifier to remove any residue every three to seven days with bleach, vinegar or by following the manufacturer's recommendation
Little baby looks at the humidifier. Moisture in the house concept kmk-vova/ Getty Images


Bad news

The bad news about your baby's first cold? It won't be her last—in fact, she may catch as many as seven colds in her first year until her immune system gets up to speed. The good news? You can help her feel better, symptom by symptom. Her cold should be gone in 10 to 14 days.

If symptoms don't respond to home treatment, get worse or don't start to get better after 10 to 14 days, contact your doctor.

 baby and father holding, comforting and consoling upset child in their home with a caring parent. PeopleImages/ Getty Images

Red alert

If your baby is younger than six months and develops a fever, don't wait—call your doctor. You should seek medical attention for any baby who develops ear pain, isn't wetting as many diapers as usual, has a persistent cough, has very thick green nasal discharge or is wheezing.

Also, see a doctor right away for babies who are coughing up blood-tinged mucous, will not accept any fluids, cough hard enough to cause vomiting, have difficulty breathing or look blue.

This article was originally published in 2013. 

Mother, Crying, Holding milorad kravic/ Getty Images
This article was originally published on Sep 28, 2015

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