Babies and the common cold

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Babies and the common cold

Do you feel as if you're constantly wiping your baby's nose? Learn to recognize, treat and prevent the common cold.

Do you feel as if you're constantly wiping your baby's nose? You probably are! Most healthy babies have six colds or more before age 1.

Colds are upper respiratory tract infections caused by one of many viruses. Most colds last a week or two, but some linger even longer. Here's how to recognize, treat and prevent these common infections.

Classic signs and symptoms

The first sign of a cold is often a congested or runny nose. Because babies' nasal passages are quite small, it doesn't take much swelling and mucus to cause congestion.

Nasal discharge is often clear at first. As the cold progresses, the discharge usually becomes thicker and turns shades of yellow or green. Later, the discharge may become clear and runny again.

Other signs of a cold may include:

  • A low-grade fever
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Watery eyes

Toughing it out

Your baby's immune system will need time to conquer the cold. Since colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics won't help.

If your baby is younger than 3 months old, call the doctor at the first sign of illness. For newborns, colds can quickly develop into croup, pneumonia or another serious illness.

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

Offer plenty of fluids
Liquids can help loosen the congestion. Encourage frequent feedings for younger babies. Offer older babies water or juice between regular feedings. If you're breast-feeding your baby, keep it up. Breast milk offers extra protection from cold-causing germs.

Suction your baby's nose
Keep your baby's nasal passages clear with a rubber-bulb syringe. Relax, it's not as scary as it may seem!

  • Squeeze the bulb syringe to expel the air.
  • Insert the tip of the bulb (about 1/4 to 1/2 inch) into your baby's nostril, pointing toward the back 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.
  • Empty the contents onto a tissue by squeezing the bulb rapidly while holding it upside 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 soothe irritated nasal passages. 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.

Thin the mucus
Your baby's doctor may recommend saline nose drops or saltwater nasal spray to loosen thick nasal mucus. Look for these over-the-counter products in your local pharmacy.

Try an over-the-counter pain reliever
For babies older than 3 months, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve discomfort or a fever. Follow the directions printed on the label. Take note of any warnings or precautions. Call your baby's doctor if you have any questions.

Avoid cough suppressants and other cold medications
Coughing helps clear the mucus from your baby's airway. For otherwise healthy babies, there's usually no reason to suppress it.

When a cold becomes something more serious

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

Again, call the doctor at the first sign of illness if your baby is younger than 3 months. If your baby is 3 months or older, call the doctor if he or she:

  • Isn't wetting as many diapers as usual
  • Has a temperature higher than 100 F for more than three days
  • Seems to have ear or sinus pain
  • Has yellow eye discharge
  • Has a cough for more than one week
  • Has thick, green nasal discharge for more than two weeks
  • Shows any signs of illness 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


Colds typically spread 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 possible, avoid public transportation 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 treated with 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 your shoulder or the crook of your arm.

Simple preventive measures can go a long way toward keeping your baby the picture of health.

© 1998-2016 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

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