Common Cold in Babies

Overview

How do babies catch a cold?

The common cold is caused by viruses, or germs, that infect the nose, throat and sinuses.

Cold germs spread easily. Babies are continually touching things that may have germs on them, such as their noses, eyes, and mouths.

Babies also put things, such as toys, in their mouths, and touch other babies while they are playing. Cold viruses can live on objects for several hours and can be picked up on the hands of other babies who touch the same object. If a baby touches something that has cold germs on it, then touches his or her mouth, eyes or nose, the germs can infect the baby.

Parents and caregivers who regularly pick up a child, change a diaper and feed the baby, can also pick up the cold virus and pass the germs to the baby.

Some cold viruses can be spread through the air when a sick baby coughs or sneezes. Droplets carrying cold germs from the cough or sneeze may reach another baby’s nose or mouth.

Symptoms and Causes

Why do babies get so many colds?

There are more than 100 different cold viruses. Babies have not yet built up their immune system to fight all of these germs. Before turning 2 years old, a baby can get as many as 8 to 10 colds a year. Most colds are seen in the fall and winter. That’s because children are indoors more and in close contact with other babies and caregivers who may have the cold virus.

What are the symptoms of the common cold in a baby?

Symptoms of a cold in a baby include:

  • Runny nose (the discharge may start out clear; later, it becomes thicker, and may be gray, yellow or green)
  • Sneezing
  • Fever (101-102 degrees Fahrenheit, 38.3-38.9 degrees Celsius)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased drooling because of sore throat and difficulty swallowing
  • Cough
  • Irritable
  • Slightly swollen glands

How do cold symptoms differ from flu symptoms, or some other illness?

If your child has any of the following symptoms, call your doctor. These symptoms could mean that the baby has something more serious than a cold:

  • Fever in an infant 2 months or younger
  • Difficulty breathing (especially if the baby’s nostrils widen with each breath), wheezing, fast breathing, or ribs showing with each breath
  • Blue lips
  • Not eating or drinking, possible dehydration
  • Ear pain
  • Excess crankiness or sleepiness
  • A cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • If the baby gets sicker

Management and Treatment

How are common colds in babies treated?

There is no cure for the common cold. Most colds go away on their own after about seven to 10 days and do not turn into something more serious.

Antibiotics cannot be used to treat colds. Sometimes, children may develop complications from bacteria, such as an ear infection or pneumonia, and antibiotics may then be used to treat these illnesses. Do not give the baby over-the-counter cough and cold medicines unless the doctor prescribes it.

To treat a common cold in babies:

  • Keep the baby comfortable.
  • Give the baby fluids. For babies 6 months or younger, let them drink breast milk or formula. At 6 months, the baby can also have some water.
  • Let the baby get plenty of rest.

Since most babies cannot blow their nose until about age 4, these methods may help ease the baby's stuffy nose:

  • Use saline and suction. About 15 minutes before a feeding, use some over-the-counter saline (salt water) drops to loosen up the mucus in the baby’s nostrils. Suction out the liquid and mucus a few minutes later with rubber bulb. This will clear the mucus out of the baby’s nose and allow the baby to breathe and suck at the same time.
  • Dab petroleum jelly on the outside of the baby's nostrils to reduce irritation. Do not block the inside of the baby’s nostrils. (Unless the doctor recommends it, do not use nasal sprays on the baby. They may work for a bit, but will make the congestion worse with continued use.)
  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer to moisten the air in the baby's room. The clean, cool mist will help moisten the air and decrease the drying of the baby’s nasal passages and throat. Clean and dry the humidifier thoroughly before using it to get rid of bacteria or mold that may have collected in the device. Do not use hot-water vaporizers because of the risk of burns.
  • Sit with the baby in a steamy room. If a humidifier is not available, an adult can take the baby into the bathroom, turn on the hot water, close the door, and sit together in the steamy room for about 15 minutes. Do not leave the baby alone in the room. Be safe around water. Giving the baby a warm bath may also work.

Babies can continue their normal activities, if they seem well enough to do so. If they have fever or complications, it is best to keep them at home.

If the baby is in daycare, tell the caregiver about any symptoms that the baby has. Be sure to make a plan on who will be available to stay home with the baby if the baby is ill.

Prevention

How can colds in babies be prevented?

The best way to prevent a baby from catching a cold is to keep the baby away from people who have colds. If possible, keep the baby home. A virus that causes a mild illness in an older child or an adult can cause a more serious one in an infant.

Hand washing is the most important way to reduce the spread of colds:

  • Adults who have contact with babies and young children should wash their hands after coughing, sneezing or wiping their nose.
  • Wash hands after touching someone who has a cold.
  • After wiping the baby’s nose, an adult should wash his or her hands and the baby’s hands.
  • Clean toys regularly and avoid sharing toys that babies place in their mouths until the toys have been washed.
  • If water and soap are not available, use pre-moistened hand wipes or alcohol-based hand sanitizers. (Be sure to keep hand sanitizers away from children. They may be harmful if swallowed.)

Keep the baby up-to-date on all of the recommended immunizations. These won’t stop colds, but can help prevent some of the complications, such as bacterial infections of the ears or lungs.

The influenza, or flu, vaccine is recommended each year for babies who are at least 6 months old. The shot protects against flu, but not against other respiratory viruses.

Living With

When should a doctor be called when a baby has a cold?

Call a doctor or take the baby to an emergency department if the baby:

  • Has trouble breathing
  • Is not eating
  • Is vomiting
  • Has a fever (rectal temperature of 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit or 38.5 degrees Celsius, or higher)

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/27/2018.

References

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Colds and the Flu. (https://familydoctor.org/condition/colds-and-the-flu/) Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. Children and Colds. (https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Children-and-Colds.aspx) Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • National Health Service. Common cold. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/) Accessed 10/3/2018.

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