Teary eyes and runny noses are par for the course in any young one’s life. Sometimes, though, these are early signs of an infection such as the common cold. Though children of any age are prone to a cold, babies between six months and 24 months of age are especially susceptible: research shows that children under two years of age can catch a cold as many as eight to 10 times a year!

This could be because, at six months after birth, babies no longer have the immunity they were born with. Some mothers also stop breastfeeding their children between six months and 12 months of age, which temporarily affects the babies’ ability to fight off common infections.

Here’s how to tell if your child is just being fussy or if they have an infection coming on: if the child has a fever, is sneezing or coughing, is irritable, is not interested in feeding, has difficulty sleeping and if his or her mucus turns thick, yellow or green, then you should not ignore these signs.

There are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold. These viruses spread from sick children to healthy ones, when kids touch a contaminated surface and then touch their eyes, mouth or nose, or if they put contaminated objects in their mouth during play.

Usually, the signs of a cold go away within one or two weeks. You can help your baby recover and soothe their symptoms by using a humidifier in their room and giving them lots of fluids (ideally children under six months should not have anything other than breastmilk, though older children can have water, lentil soup or clear chicken broth). Using medical saline solution to loosen the mucus and suction it out is a tried and tested method for easing nasal congestion in babies.

Whether you are a first-time parent or have an older child, it is natural to feel anxious when your baby is sick. However, a common cold is a stepping stone, as your child builds immunity to fight viral infections, bacterial infections, fungal infections and all kinds of pathogens. Read on to know more about the symptoms, causes, precautions, diagnosis and treatment for the common cold in babies as well as tips to help soothe your baby when he or she has a nasty cold.

Read more: Influenza (flu) in children

  1. Common cold symptoms in babies
  2. Causes of common cold in babies
  3. Transmission of common cold virus in babies
  4. Common cold prevention in babies
  5. Common cold diagnosis in babies
  6. Common cold treatment and tips for babies
  7. Common cold complications in babies
Doctors for Common Cold in Babies

Soon after they are born and for as long as children are breastfed, they tend to be protected from common illnesses. This is because immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies can pass from the mom to the baby via breast milk.

That said, as the child’s immune system develops slowly but steadily, infections like the common cold are, well, common. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Blocked or runny nose: This will become apparent if the baby has difficulty breathing. Babies also find it difficult to suckle if they have a blocked nose. Make a note if the baby’s mucus changes colour to yellow or green, as this is a clear sign of infection.
  • Fever: If your baby’s temperature goes to 38.5 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or above, call your paediatrician. (Read more: Roseola infection in children)
    For babies older than three months and running a temperature less than 38.5 degrees Celsius, you can try some nonpharmaceutical remedies to bring the body temperature down (more on this below). However, do not give the baby over-the-counter medicines for fever without checking with your doctor first.
  • Sneezing and/or coughing: The baby may also have a slightly sore throat. If he or she is spitting up much more than usual, call your paediatrician.
  • Difficulty sleeping: This can be difficult to observe if your child is going through separation anxiety (usually around six months of age) or if he or she is teething because babies have trouble sleeping in both these conditions, too.
    Remember, hard as it may be for you to watch your child wake up several times in the night, it is important that the baby sleeps in his or her crib—you can place the crib next to your bed so you can check on the baby during the night. (Read more: Sudden infant death syndrome)
  • Loss of appetite: Just like grown-ups, babies tend to lose their appetite when they are sick. Additionally, if you are breastfeeding your baby or if the baby drinks milk out of a bottle, then difficulty suckling during a cold can also curb their appetite.
  • Other signs: Babies this young cannot tell us their symptoms and problems. Medicos with years of experience say that a common cold infection in infants is also associated with headaches, muscle ache, fatigue and a feeling of clogged or stuffed up sinuses. Gently rubbing the babies head and legs may soothe the pain.

Usually, the cold goes away within two weeks. Call your doctor if the fever, blocked nose or any other signs persist beyond 14 days.

Just like grown-ups, babies too are more likely to catch a cold in the winter months.

(You may also be interested in Baby Bedtime Routine)

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​Common cold in babies—as in adults—is a viral infection. There are some 200 viruses that cause the symptoms of common cold, including at least 150 known serotypes of rhinoviruses.

Rhinoviruses are single-stranded RNA viruses with a clover leaf-like structure at one end. Scientists have found more than one rhinovirus in patients complaining of a cold. Research has also shown that these viruses can recombine with each other in ways that make it difficult to find a “cure” for the common cold.

As adults, most of us build a pretty strong resistance to common illnesses: our bodies have the antibodies to fight thousands of different pathogens. That said, the common cold is caused by so many different viruses that even if you develop antibodies for one strain, next year you could get sick with a different strain of the common cold virus. In other words, no one in the world, no matter how healthy, is entirely immune to a common cold.

Babies are yet to fully build their immune system, and can be susceptible to the common cold frequently until they are about six years old.

The common cold virus spreads in one of the following ways:

  • Direct contact with someone who is sick: Coming in contact with a grown-up or another child with the common cold can put your baby at risk of contracting the infection, too.
  • Through the air: Droplet transmission of the virus occurs when someone with a cold sneezes, coughs or talks near the baby, and infected droplets from their nose or mouth enter the baby’s eyes, mouth or nose.
  • Fomites: These are daily use objects that are often shared in places like the home, nursery school, playgrounds and on public transport. Say, someone with a cold wipes their runny nose and then touches a ball in the ball pit, then that ball becomes contaminated and can pass the virus on to the next person (or child) who touches it.
  • Contaminated floor: Babies who crawl are also likely to pick up germs from the floor.
  • Contaminated toys and objects: Babies also tend to put things in their mouths, which makes them more prone to infections.
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You can’t protect babies from common illnesses most of the time, but here’s what you can do to minimise them:

  • Disinfect the floors in your home, especially if your children can crawl now. Try to keep a separate set of flip-flops or shoes for home, and change your shoes as soon as you enter the home.
  • If your child is at the stage where they are putting things in their mouth, dust and clean all objects within the child’s reach often.
  • If you are a caregiver to more than one child, separate the children if one of them is sick and wash your hands before you pick up or feed or play with each child.
  • Do not send a sick child to daycare or the park, to play with other children.
  • If you are sick, try to see if someone else can watch the kids while you rest.
  • If you are breastfeeding, you can continue to do so while you’re sick—breastmilk can carry antibodies from your body to your baby’s. Try to wear a face mask to reduce droplet transmission and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before picking up the baby. Additionally, if you are sick and breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking any medication.
  • Practise strict respiratory etiquette around the baby. This includes the right way to sneeze or cough: sneeze or cough into a tissue and discard the tissue in a dustbin with a lid; wash your hands with soap and water.

Children usually have the energy to play and stay active through a cold (unlike the flu). If they are running a slight temperature (under 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and have a runny or blocked nose and a slightly sore throat, then there’s a good chance that a common cold is the cause. However, there are some things you should watch out for. Take your child to see a paediatrician if:

  • The child is under three months old and has even a slight fever.
  • In children aged three months to 24 months, visit a paediatrician if the child’s temperature crosses 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The child develops ear pain or an ear infection (rhinoviruses are also responsible for nearly half the cases of acute otitis media infections in children up to two years of age).
  • The child stops eating and drinking (read more: dehydration in children).
  • The child starts wheezing, or if the child has difficulty breathing, and his or her nostrils flare every time he or she tries to breathe.
  • The child’s lips start turning blue.
  • The child’s cough does not go away, even after three weeks.
  • The child coughs so hard that it causes vomiting.
  • The child gets chills or diarrhoea.

To diagnose the child, the doctor will do a physical examination. He or she may also recommend some imaging tests, to check for any fluid buildup in the lungs or other complications of rhinovirus infection in children.

Doctors usually do not recommend medicines for young children. Baby paracetamol and expectorants for children may be prescribed in some cases, but be very careful not to take these without a doctor’s recommendation. This is because simple over-the-counter medicines like aspirin and paracetamol can also have serious side-effects such as Reye’s syndrome and liver problems in infants under two years of age.

You can try these safe remedies to help your child recover quickly:

  • Nasal saline solution: Babies can’t blow their noses in the way that grown-ups can. Plus, their skin is very sensitive, so if you pinch their nose constantly to get the mucus out, it could cause skin irritation. Instead, the use of saline solution is considered safe for children under two years. It is a good idea to check with your doctor before doing this. That said, here’s how to do it:
    • Hold your baby firmly in one arm—you can swaddle the baby to comfort the baby and keep him or her still.
    • Take the sterilized bulb syringe out of the box.
    • Shake the bottle of store-bought saline solution.
    • Using the dropper, put two drops of saline solution in one nostril. Wait for a minute. Now, squeeze the bulb to get all the air out of the syringe. Place the syringe gently inside your baby’s nostril and release the bulb. The saline solution should loosen the mucus and the bulb syringe should help to suction it out.
    • Drain the syringe into a sink or toilet bowl by pressing the syringe.
    • Repeat the procedure on the other nostril.
    • Wash the syringe properly before storing and using again.
  • Steam bath: Fill water in a tub or buckets till the bathroom becomes steamy. Stand or sit in the steamy bathroom with your baby for 15 minutes. Make sure you hold the child securely throughout. Do not try to lean over the hot water—the steam will get into your baby’s nose anyway.
  • Humidifier: Try placing a humidifier in the baby’s room, to ease breathing and prevent nasal discharge from crusting up near the baby’s nostrils.
  • Warm bath: Giving the baby a warm bath might also help. However, avoid this if your baby hates baths. (Read more: Why does my baby hate baths and what to do about it)

Read more: Nasal drops and nasal spray for children

Rhinoviruses are a very common cause of upper respiratory tract infections. In babies, they have also been known to cause certain complications such as:

  • Ear infection: This occurs when a bacteria or virus gets in behind the eardrum.
  • Sinusitis: Sinusitis or inflamed sinuses can make breathing even harder.
  • Secondary infections: These infections can also be caused by rhinoviruses, and require immediate medical attention. They include:
    • Pneumonia is characterised by the build-up of fluid in the lungs
    • Bronchiolitis is inflammation of the tiny airways (bronchioles) that branch off from the bronchi to take air into the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs.
    • Croup is also known as laryngotracheobronchitis. It is marked by inflammation in the windpipe (trachea) which makes breathing difficult.
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  2. NIH Research Matter, US National Institutes of Health [Internet]. Understanding a common cold virus, 13 April 2009.
  3. Toivonen L., Schuez-Havupalo L., Karppinen S., et al. Rhinovirus infections in the first 2 years of life. Pediatrics, 31 August 2016; 138(3): e20161309
  4. Vandini S., Biagi C., Fischer M. and Lanari M. Impact of rhinovirus infections in children. Viruses, 5 June 2019; 11(6): 521. PMID: 31195744.
  5. Palmenberg A.C., Spiro D., Kuzmickas R., Wang S.,Djikeng A., Rathe J.A., Fraser-Liggett C.M. and Liggett S.B. Sequencing and analyses of all known human rhinovirus genomes reveal structure and evolution. Science, 3 April 2009: 55-59.
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