A common cold is a viral infection of your baby's nose and throat. Nasal congestion and a runny nose are the main indicators of a cold.
Babies are especially susceptible to the common cold, in part because they're often around other older children. Also, they have yet to develop immunity to many common infections. Within the first year of life, most babies have up to seven colds; more if they're in child care centers.
Treatment for the common cold in babies involves easing their symptoms, such as by providing fluids, keeping the air moist and helping them keep their nasal passages open. 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.
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 might thicken and turn yellow or green
Other signs and symptoms of a common cold in a baby may include:
- Decreased appetite
- 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.
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 your baby:
- 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 other signs or symptoms that worry you, such as an unusual or alarming cry
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
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. Rhinoviruses are the most common.
Once infected by a virus, your baby generally becomes immune to that virus. But because so many viruses cause colds, your baby may have several colds a year and many throughout his or her lifetime. Also, some viruses don't produce lasting immunity.
A common cold virus enters your baby's mouth, nose or eyes. Your baby can be infected with a virus by:
- Air. When someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks, he or she might directly spread the virus to your baby.
- Direct contact. Someone with a cold who touches your baby's hand can spread the cold virus to your baby, who can become infected after touching his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
- Contaminated surfaces. Some viruses 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 a common cold.
- 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 spend time with other children, who don't always wash their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes, which increases your baby's risk of catching a cold.
- Time of year. Both children and adults are more susceptible to colds from fall to late spring.
- Acute ear infection (otitis media). This is the most common complication of the common cold. Ear infections occur when bacteria or viruses enter 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 pneumonia, bronchiolitis and croup. Such infections require evaluation by a doctor.
The best defense against the common cold: Common sense and soap and water.
- Keep your baby away from anyone who's sick. 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 touching your baby. When soap and water aren't available, use hand wipes or gels that contain 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 help keep the common cold at bay.