How to treat your baby's cold

Is your little one extra fussy, stuffed up and running a low-grade fever? She might have a cold, which is totally normal—even healthy kids can get eight to 12 a year. Read on for tips on how to treat your baby's cold.
treat your baby's cold

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My grandson Xavier, just three weeks old, has his first cold. He’s sneezing and coughing, and has to stop breastfeeding every few minutes to take a breath because his nose is all plugged up. And he’s miserable. When your baby has a cold, you want him to feel better, but what should you do?


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The over-the-counter cold medicines that parents may have tried with their snuffly babies have now been removed from drugstore shelves, and Michael Rieder, head of the clinical pharmacology department at the Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario in London, says that was an important step. “The Canadian Paediatric Society has been suggesting this be done for some time now. There is no evidence that these medicines worked, and real evidence that they could cause harm.”

While liquid medications for older children are still on the shelves, don’t be tempted to try a smaller dose on your infant. A 2007 Philadelphia study, published in the Journal of Forensic Science, reported 16 deaths of infants over a period of six years were linked to cold medications. And a 2005 study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 1,500 infants and toddlers were seen in hospital emergency departments during the previous year due to adverse effects from these medications (the ingredient most often causing concern was pseudoephredine).

Henry Ukpeh, a paediatrician in Trail, BC, says, “A physician may advise limited use of decongestants in some situations.” For example, when a baby is having trouble breastfeeding due to congestion, the doctor might (after examining the baby) prescribe a topical decongestant to be applied directly in the baby’s nose, about 10 to 15 minutes before he’s likely to nurse. Even then, Ukpeh adds, “they should be used with caution, not more than three or four times in 24 hours.”

So if the medications are not generally advisable, what can the parent of a runny-nosed infant do?

Ukpeh recommends:

  • Try saline drops in the nose to moisten the mucus and make it easier to remove.
  • Treat mild fevers with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Encourage the baby to take plenty of fluids (meaning breastfeeding as often as possible for a young baby, and perhaps adding water or diluted juice for a baby on solid foods or formula) and to rest.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier to help baby with a stuffy nose, but be sure to wash and dry it thoroughly each day to prevent contamination from bacteria and mould. Giving your baby a warm bath or sitting with her in the bathroom while the shower runs can also help soften the mucus in her nose.
  • Raising the crib mattress (by putting something underneath it, not by using a pillow under the baby) so that the baby’s head is higher than his body may also help him sleep more comfortably.

If your baby has a lot of mucus in his nose, it may help to soften it with saline drops, then use a suction bulb to remove it. But Ukpeh cautions that when the baby has soft-tissue swelling in his nose, the suctioning is likely to irritate the tissue and make things worse, so be gentle.

Pay attention as well to how long the cold is lasting. “Colds are caused by viruses,” Ukpeh says. “They run their course in five to seven days. But children can start off with colds and end up with bacterial infections that definitely require treatment. If your child’s cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, be sure to see the doctor.”

And you might want to keep this article and list of suggested treatments handy: Ukpeh says that even healthy children can get eight to 12 colds a year. Stocking up on tissues might not be a bad idea, either.

See a doctor if your baby has a cold and:

  • is under three months
  • is having trouble breathing
  • is not eating or drinking
  • seems lethargic and sleepy
  • has a persistent fever over 38.5°C/101.3°F (rectal)
  • has a persistent wet cough

An ounce of prevention
Since cold viruses are highly contagious, keeping your baby away from people with colds is the most effective way to prevent infection. Of course, this isn’t easy when it’s your own toddler who is coughing and sneezing near your new baby. Ukpeh recommends that parents—and anyone else who comes in contact with your little one—also wash their hands frequently as this is the most common method of transmission.

This article was originally published in December 2007. 

Read more:
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5 foods that fight cold and flu
Fast fever facts

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