Mayo Clinic Health Library

Common cold in babies

Updated: 05-29-2013

Definition

A common cold is a viral infection of your baby's nose and throat. Nasal congestion and a runny nose are the primary signs of common cold in babies.

Babies are especially susceptible to the common cold, in part because they're often around other older children who don't always wash their hands. Also, they have yet to develop immunity to many common infections. Within the first year of life, most babies have up to seven colds.

Treatment for the common cold in babies involves easing their symptoms, such as by providing plenty of fluids and keeping the air moist. Very young infants must see a doctor at the first sign of the common cold because they're at greater risk of croup and pneumonia.

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Symptoms

The first indication of the common cold in a baby is often:

  • A congested or runny nose
  • Nasal discharge that may be clear at first but then usually becomes thicker and turns shades of yellow or green

Other signs of a common cold may include:

  • A low-grade fever of about 100.4 F (38 C)
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble nursing or taking a bottle due to nasal congestion

When to see a doctor
Your baby's immune system will need time to mature. If your baby has a cold with no complications, it should resolve within 10 to 14 days.

If your baby is younger than 2 to 3 months of age, call the doctor early in the illness. For newborns, a common cold can quickly develop into croup, pneumonia or another serious illness. Even without such complications, a stuffy nose can make it difficult for your baby to nurse or drink from a bottle. This can lead to dehydration. As your baby gets older, your doctor can guide you on when your baby needs to be seen by a doctor and when you can treat his or her cold at home.

Most colds are simply a nuisance. But it's important to take your baby's signs and symptoms seriously.

If your baby is 3 months old or older, call the doctor if he or she:

  • Isn't wetting as many diapers as usual
  • Has a temperature higher than 100.4 F (38 C)
  • Seems to have ear pain or is unusually irritable
  • Has red eyes or develops yellow or greenish eye discharge
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has a persistent cough
  • Has thick, green nasal discharge for several days
  • Has any other signs or symptoms that worry you

Seek medical help immediately if your baby:

  • Refuses to nurse or accept fluids
  • Coughs hard enough to cause vomiting or changes in skin color
  • Coughs up blood-tinged sputum
  • Has difficulty breathing or is bluish around the lips and mouth
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Causes

The common cold is an infection of the nose and throat (upper respiratory tract infection) that can be caused by one of more than 100 viruses. The rhinovirus and coronavirus are common culprits and are highly contagious.

Once your baby has been infected by a virus, he or she generally becomes immune to that specific virus. But because there are so many viruses that cause colds, your baby may have several colds a year and many throughout his or her lifetime. Also, there are some viruses that don't produce lasting immunity.

A common cold virus enters your baby's body through his or her mouth or nose. Your baby may be infected with such a virus by:

  • Air. When someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks, he or she may directly spread the virus to your baby.
  • Direct contact. The common cold can spread when someone who is sick touches his or her mouth or nose and then touches your baby's hand. Your baby can then become infected by touching his or her own eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Contaminated surfaces. Some viruses can live on surfaces for two hours or longer. Your baby may catch a virus by touching a contaminated surface, such as a toy.
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Risk factors

A few factors put infants at higher risk of common colds.

  • Immature immune systems. Infants are, by nature, at risk of common colds because they haven't yet been exposed to or developed resistance to most of the viruses that cause them.
  • Exposure to other children. Infants tend to spend lots of time with other children, and children aren't always careful about washing their hands and covering their coughs and sneezes. So if your baby is in child care or has an older, school-age brother or sister in the house, your baby may have a higher risk of catching a cold.
  • Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds in fall and winter. Children are in school and most people are spending a lot of time indoors, which can make germs easier to spread from person to person.
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Complications

  • Acute ear infection (otitis media). The most common complication of the common cold is ear infection. Ear infections occur when bacteria or viruses infiltrate the space behind the eardrum.
  • Wheezing. A cold can trigger wheezing, even if your child doesn't have asthma. If your child does have asthma, a cold can make it worse.
  • Sinusitis. A common cold that doesn't resolve may lead to a secondary infection within the sinuses (sinusitis).
  • Other secondary infections. These include strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis), pneumonia, bronchiolitis and croup. Such infections need to be evaluated by a doctor.
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Preparing for your appointment

You're likely to start by seeing your baby's pediatrician or family doctor. Here's some information to help you get ready for your baby's appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Write down any signs you've noticed in your baby, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, such as a description of any child care setting or known exposure your child has had to the common cold. Note how frequently your child has had colds, as well as how long they usually last.
  • Make a list of all medications your baby is taking.
  • Tell the doctor if your child is exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your baby's doctor. For a common cold, some basic questions to ask the doctor include:

  • What is likely causing my baby's symptoms or condition?
  • Are there other possible causes?
  • What tests are needed?
  • What's the best course of action?
  • My baby has these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any restrictions we need to follow?
  • Are there over-the-counter medications that aren't safe for my child at his or her age?

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.

What to expect from your doctor
Your baby's doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:

  • When did your baby begin experiencing signs of a cold?
  • Have these signs been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are they?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve them?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen them?
  • Has the nasal congestion caused a decrease in nursing or bottle feeding?
  • Is your child exposed to cigarette smoke?
  • Has there been fever? If so, how high?
  • Are you child's vaccinations up to date?
  • Has your child taken antibiotics recently?

What you can do in the meantime
While you wait for your baby's appointment, you can take steps to help make him or her more comfortable. These include moistening the air in your home and using saline and a suction bulb to remove mucus from your child's nose.

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Treatments and drugs

Unfortunately, there's no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics don't work against cold viruses. The best you can do is take steps at home to try to make your baby more comfortable, such as suctioning mucus from his or her nose and keeping the air moist. Call the doctor early in the illness if your baby is younger than 3 months old.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications should generally be avoided in infants. Fever-reducing medications may be safely used — carefully following dosing directions — if fever is making your child uncomfortable. Cough and cold medications are not safe for infants and young children.

Fever-reducing medications
OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may help relieve discomfort associated with a fever. Don't give acetaminophen to children under 3 months of age, and be especially careful when giving acetaminophen to older babies and children because the dosing guidelines can be confusing. Call your doctor if you have any questions about the right dosage for your baby.

Ibuprofen (Children's Motrin, Advil, others) also is OK, but only if your child is 6 months old or older.

Do not give these medications to your baby if he or she is dehydrated or vomiting continuously.

Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Since many viral illnesses look alike at the beginning, it is better to avoid aspirin use in children.

Cough and cold medications
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly recommends against giving over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2. OTC cough and cold medicines don't treat the underlying cause of a child's cold and won't make it go away sooner. These medications also have potential side effects, including rapid heart rate and convulsions.

In June 2008, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association voluntarily modified consumer product labels on OTC cough and cold medicines to state "do not use" in children under 4 years of age, and many companies have stopped manufacturing these products for young children.

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Lifestyle and home remedies

Most of the time, you can treat an older baby's cold at home. Consider these suggestions:

  • Offer plenty of fluids. Liquids are important to avoid dehydration. Encourage your baby to take in his or her normal amount of fluids. Extra fluids aren't necessary. If you're breast-feeding your baby, keep it up. Breast milk offers extra protection from cold-causing germs.
  • Thin the mucus. Your baby's doctor may recommend saline nose drops to loosen thick nasal mucus. Look for these over-the-counter drops in your local pharmacy.
  • Suction your baby's nose. Keep your baby's nasal passages clear with a rubber-bulb syringe. Squeeze the bulb syringe to expel the air. Then insert the tip of the bulb about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (0.64 to 1.27 centimeters) into your baby's nostril, pointing toward the back and side of the nose. Release the bulb, holding it in place while it suctions the mucus from your baby's nose. Remove the syringe from your baby's nostril, and empty the contents onto a tissue by squeezing the bulb rapidly while holding the tip down. Repeat as often as needed for each nostril. Clean the bulb syringe with soap and water.
  • Moisten the air. Running a humidifier in your baby's room can help improve runny nose and nasal congestion symptoms. Aim the mist away from your baby's crib to keep the bedding from becoming damp. To prevent mold growth, change the water daily and follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning the unit. It might also help to sit with your baby in a steamy bathroom for a few minutes before bedtime.
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Prevention

The common cold typically spreads through infected respiratory droplets coughed or sneezed into the air. The best defense? Common sense and plenty of soap and water.

  • Keep your baby away from anyone who's sick, especially during the first few days of illness. If you have a newborn, don't allow visits from anyone who's sick. If possible, avoid public transportation and public gatherings with your newborn.
  • Wash your hands before feeding or caring for your baby. When soap and water aren't available, use hand wipes or gels that contain germ-killing alcohol.
  • Clean your baby's toys and pacifiers often.
  • Teach everyone in the household to cough or sneeze into a tissue — and then toss it. If you can't reach a tissue in time, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.

Simple preventive measures can go a long way toward keeping the common cold at bay.

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