Before a newborn baby’s immune system fully develops, they may catch and have to fight off viruses that lead to colds.

Pregnant people begin passing antibodies to their embryos in the last 3 months of pregnancy. Newborns retain this passive immunity for a short period, but it begins to wear off within the first weeks and months of life.

As a newborn begins to build their immune system, they will likely catch a common cold. While symptoms can frighten parents or caregivers, these illnesses are vital. They help the baby’s developing immune system learn to fight the different viruses that cause the common cold.

Children usually have numerous colds before their first birthday. Treating a newborn cold requires especially gentle care, but colds are not often serious.

However, the symptoms of colds in newborns may be similar to those of other illnesses, including croup and pneumonia. These conditions are more serious, so parents or caregivers should contact a pediatrician to ensure the baby has a cold and not another condition.

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Newborns with a cold may have excess nasal discharge that starts runny and watery but progresses to a thicker yellow or green discharge within a few days. This is the natural progression of the infection and does not automatically mean symptoms are getting worse.

Other signs of a cold in a newborn include:

  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • irritability or fussing
  • red eyes
  • lack of appetite
  • trouble sleeping or staying asleep
  • difficulty feeding due to a stuffy nose

A slight fever may also follow, another sign of their body fighting off the infection.

A caregiver should consult a pediatrician if any newborn has a rectal fever above 100.4 °F to rule out an infection more serious than a cold.

A pediatrician can do a thorough evaluation to check if a newborn has a cold or a different illness.

While many of the above symptoms are common for multiple disorders, newborns with flu, croup, or pneumonia often show other signs.

Flu

A newborn with flu may have cold symptoms, but may also experience vomiting, diarrhea, or higher fever.

The baby may also be especially fussy due to other symptoms they are too young to express. A baby with the flu will often seem sicker than with a cold, but not always.

Croup

Babies with croup will have the typical symptoms of a cold, but these symptoms may quickly get worse.

Babies may develop a harsh, barking cough. They may have difficulty breathing, which could cause them to make straining, squeaking noises, or sound hoarse when they cough.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, begins as a cold, but symptoms can shift after around a week. The baby may develop a severe hacking cough that makes it hard for them to breathe.

This cough may make the baby take deep breaths that sound like a “whoop” immediately after coughing. However, the classic “whoop” is more common in older children and adults than in babies. An infant with whooping cough often vomits after coughing. They may also briefly turn blue or stop breathing.

Whooping cough is serious and requires immediate medical care.

Pneumonia

Babies may be more at risk than older people of having a cold turn into pneumonia. This can happen quickly, which is why it is important to consult a pediatrician for a proper diagnosis.

Pneumonia symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • high fever, sweating, and flushed skin
  • a strong cough that worsens over time
  • abdominal sensitivity

Babies with pneumonia may also have difficulty breathing. They may breathe more rapidly than usual, or their breathing could sound strained.

In some cases, their lips or fingers may look blueish, which indicates they are not getting enough oxygen and need emergency medical attention.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV is a respiratory virus that is common in early childhood and usually infects children by age 2. It usually presents as a common cold, but it can be more serious in newborns and lead to complications.

Symptoms of RSV include:

  • runny nose
  • cough
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing
  • lack of appetite
  • complications like pneumonia or bronchiolitis

A parent or caregiver can treat a newborn cold at home. The baby’s body is learning to protect itself, and the best assistance adults can offer is comfort during the process. It may take up to 2 weeks for a baby’s symptoms to go completely.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend over-the-counter cold medications for babies, as they do not work and can have serious side effects.

Home remedies

Pediatricians may recommend a few different home remedies to help babies through their early colds. These include:

  • Hydration: When a baby is fighting off a cold, mucus and fever can use up vital liquids and electrolytes. Parents or caregivers should keep them hydrated.
  • Cleaning their nasal passages: Cleaning out a baby’s nose with nasal saline drops and a rubber syringe may help them breathe easier.
  • Humidity: Using a gentle cool-mist humidifier to moisten the area around the baby’s crib may help them breathe better and relieve congestion.
  • Steam: Holding the baby in a steamy bathroom with the hot water running for 10–15 minutes may loosen mucus. A person should always supervise an infant around hot water to protect the child from burn injuries.
  • Rest: It may be best to avoid public places and allow the baby plenty of extra time to rest while they heal.

A person should discuss any worsening of symptoms with a pediatrician.

The viruses that cause the common cold can spread through the air or contact with someone who has the virus. A person carrying the virus may not show any symptoms.

Different factors may increase the risk of a newborn catching a cold, such as exposure to older children or being around people who smoke. Steps that can reduce their exposure include:

  • regular hand washing by anyone who is in contact with the baby
  • avoiding people who are sick or have been around someone who is sick
  • limiting exposure to crowds
  • avoiding secondhand smoke
  • regularly cleaning toys and surfaces

When a parent nurses a baby, the baby may retain some passive immunity for longer due to immune compounds in the milk. This does not mean the baby will not get sick, but they may get sick less often and fight off infections more easily than formula-fed babies.

A fever is one of a baby’s primary defenses against infections such as colds. In newborns, a fever at or above 100.4 °F warrants a call to a pediatrician. In all cases, a person should speak with a healthcare professional if a young baby has a fever that persists for more than a few days or one that goes away for a day or two but then returns.

Very young babies may not have a fever even in the face of a serious infection. If a newborn seems ill, even with no fever, a person should seek medical care.

It is also important to speak with a pediatrician if any other unusual symptoms show up in the baby, such as:

  • trouble breathing
  • an unusual-sounding cry or cough
  • signs of physical pain or discomfort
  • difficulty eating or refusing to eat
  • skin rashes
  • persistent diarrhea or vomiting
  • dehydration and decreased urine output

In some cases, a baby may not have symptoms but a parent or caregiver may sense they do not seem “right”. If a person has any uncertainty about a baby’s symptoms, they should seek medical help.

It is impossible to avoid every germ in a baby’s growing environment, and getting sick is as normal for them as it is for everyone else. The best thing a parent or caregiver can do is help them feel comfortable while their body fights off the cold.

Colds may turn into serious illnesses, so regular checkups with a pediatrician are vital, especially if a baby has a high fever or shows other symptoms. It is essential to call a pediatrician at the first sign of sickness to rule out more serious conditions in newborn babies.