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Common cold in babies

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.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

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

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.

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.
  • 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.

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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