Overview

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

Babies are especially likely to get the common cold, in part because they're often around older children. Also, they have not yet developed immunity to many common infections. Within the first year of life, most babies have six to eight colds. They may have even 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 to make sure croup, pneumonia or other more serious illnesses aren't present.

Symptoms

The first signs of the common cold in a baby are 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:

  • Fever
  • 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. Most colds are simply a nuisance. But it's important to take your baby's signs and symptoms seriously. If symptoms don't improve or if they worsen, it's time to talk to your doctor.

If your baby is younger than 3 months of age, call the doctor early in the illness. In newborns, it's especially important to make sure that a more serious illness isn't present, especially if your baby has a fever.

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 or wheezing
  • 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 or not waking up to eat

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 mucus
  • Has difficulty breathing or is bluish around the lips
  • Has unusually low energy or sleepiness

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 200 viruses. Rhinoviruses are the most common.

A cold virus enters your baby's body through his or her mouth, eyes or nose.

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.

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.

Risk factors

A few factors put babies at higher risk of a common cold.

  • Immature immune systems. Babies 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. Spending time with other children, who don't always wash their hands or cover their coughs and sneezes, can increase your baby's risk of catching a cold. Exposure to anyone with a cold can increase the risk of getting a cold.
  • Time of year. Colds are more common from fall to late spring, but your baby can get a cold at any time.

Complications

These conditions can occur along with a common cold:

  • 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.
  • Acute sinusitis. A common cold that doesn't resolve may lead to an infection within the sinuses (sinusitis).
  • Other infections. A common cold can lead to other infections, including pneumonia, bronchiolitis and croup. Such infections need to be treated by a doctor.

Prevention

There's no vaccine for the common cold. The best defense against the common cold is commonsense precautions and frequent hand-washing.

  • 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. Wash your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Teach your older children the importance of hand-washing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Clean your baby's toys and pacifiers often. Clean frequently touched surfaces. This is especially important if someone in your family or your baby's playmate has a cold.
  • Teach everyone in the household to cough or sneeze into a tissue. Throw away used tissues right away and then wash your hands thoroughly. If you can't reach a tissue in time, cough or sneeze into your elbow. Then wash your hands.
  • Review your child care center's policies. Look for a child care setting with good hygiene practices and clear policies about keeping sick children at home.

Simple preventive measures can help keep the common cold at bay.

June 24, 2021
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