What to expect from a baby's first cold
Colds are less common in newborns because they have some immunity from their mothers. This immunity wears off by about 6 months, and then colds become more common.
A newborn with a cold can be scary for a parent or carer to watch. But these illnesses are vital to help the baby's body learn to fight the viruses that cause the common cold.
Children will usually have numerous colds before their first birthday. There are some other symptoms to look out for to be sure it is a cold, and there will be times when a doctor should be seen.
Treating a newborn's cold requires especially gentle care but is often not a serious issue.
- A cold may strike at any time of year and in a child of any age.
- Nasal symptoms may be an early sign of a cold in newborn babies.
- Babies less than 3 months old should be taken to a doctor if they have a cold.
Symptoms of a newborn cold
Some immunity to infections is passed to newborns from their mother, but this wears off at around 6 months old.
Newborns may have excess nasal discharge that starts out runny and watery but progresses to a thicker, yellow to green discharge within a few days.
This is the natural progression of the infection and does not automatically mean symptoms are getting worse.
A slight fever may also follow, which could be another sign of their body fighting off the infection.
Other signs of a cold in newborns include:
- irritability or fussing
- red eyes
- lack of appetite
- trouble sleeping or staying asleep
- difficulty nursing due to a stuffy nose
The signs of colds in newborns are similar to the symptoms of some other illnesses, including croup and pneumonia. These conditions are more serious, however, so parents and carers should contact a doctor or specialist pediatrician if a newborn shows signs of a cold.
A doctor can do a thorough diagnosis and usually put troubled minds at ease. The parents or carers can then better focus on tending to their child's cold.
Is it something more serious?
While many of the above symptoms are common for multiple disorders, newborns with flu, croup, or pneumonia will often show other symptoms.
A newborn with flu may have cold symptoms, but these are often alongside other signs that may include vomiting, diarrhea, or higher fever.
The baby may also be especially fussy due to other symptoms they are too young to cannot express. A baby with the flu will often seem sicker than with a cold, but not always.
Babies with croup will have the typical symptoms of a cold, but these symptoms may quickly get worse.
Babies may have a harsh, barking cough. They may have difficulty breathing, which could cause them to make straining, squeaking noises, or to sounding hoarse when they cough.
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, begins as a cold, but symptoms can shift after a week or so. The baby may develop a severe hacking cough that makes it hard for them to breathe.
The cough may make the baby take deep breaths immediately after coughing. These breaths make a whooping noise.
The classic "whoop," however, is more common in older children and adults and does not often happen in babies.
An infant with pertussis often vomits after coughing or, more seriously, may briefly turn blue or stop breathing.
Whooping cough is serious and requires immediate medical care.
Babies may be more at risk than older people of a cold turning into pneumonia. This can happen quickly, which is why it is important to notify a pediatrician for a proper diagnosis.
Pneumonia symptoms include:
- high fever
- flushed skin
- strong cough, worsening over time
- abdominal sensitivity
Babies with pneumonia may also have difficulty breathing. They could breathe more rapidly than normal, or their breathing could sound difficult.
In some cases, their lips or fingers may look blueish, which is a sign they are not getting enough oxygen and need emergency medical attention.
A doctor may prescribe saline nasal drops to help ease a baby's stuffy nose.
A newborn cold often has to be treated with patient care. The baby's body is learning to protect itself, and the best assistance adults can offer is comfort and gentle care during the process.
Over-the-counter cold medications are not recommended for babies, as they do not work and can have serious side effects.
Doctors may recommend a few different home remedies to help babies through their early colds. Nasal saline drops are sometimes suggested to help with a stuffy nose.
In some cases, they may also discuss the possibility of using fever-reducing medication.
It may take up to 2 weeks for a baby's symptoms to go completely.
The following home remedies can ease symptoms:
- Hydration: Babies should be well fed and hydrated when they are fighting off a cold, as mucus and fever can take away vital liquids and electrolytes.
- Clean nasal passages: Cleaning out a baby's nose with a rubber syringe may help the baby breathe easier.
- Humidity: Using a gentle humidifier to moisten the area around the baby's crib may assist them to breathe better and relieve congestion.
- Steam: Standing in a steamy bathroom with the hot water running for 10 to 15 minutes may loosen mucus.
- Rest: It may be best to avoid public places and allow the baby plenty of extra time to rest while they heal.
Any worsening of symptoms should be discussed with a doctor, and home remedies should be used with caution.
Risks and prevention
While newborns get colds infrequently, older babies and young children have a greater risk of getting a cold simply because they have not yet developed resistance to the viruses that cause them.
A couple of other factors may increase this risk, such as exposure to older children or being around people who smoke.
The viruses that cause the common cold can spread through the air or from contact with someone who has the virus. A person who is carrying the virus may not show any symptoms. A baby who has contact with such a person can easily become infected themselves.
It is best to help an infant avoid a cold by taking steps to reduce their exposure. These includes:
- 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
Nursing may also allow some of the mother's antibodies to be fed to the baby. It does not mean the baby will not get sick, but they may get sick less often, and it may be easier for them to fight off infections than formula-fed babies.
When to see a doctor
It is important to seek advice from a doctor if a newborn seems unwell.
A fever is one of the baby's primary defenses against infections such as colds.
In very young babies under 3 months, fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) would warrant a call to the doctor. Under 6 months, fever of 101°F would be a sign they need a doctor's attention.
Very young babies may not have a fever even in the face of serious infection. If a newborn seems ill, even with no fever, medical care should be sought right away.
In all cases, a young baby who has a fever that persists for more than a few days, or one that goes away for a day or two but then returns, should be seen by a doctor.
It is also important to see a doctor if any other unusual symptoms show up in the baby.
These include symptoms such as:
- trouble breathing normally
- unusual sounding cry or cough
- signs of physical pain or discomfort
- trouble eating or refusing to eat
- skin rashes
- persistent diarrhea or vomiting
In some cases, a parent or carer may simply sense the baby just does not seem right. If there is any uncertainty about the symptoms a baby is showing, they should see a doctor straight away.
Colds are common in babies that are building their immune system, but rarer in newborns.
It is impossible to avoid every germ in a baby's growing environment, and getting sick is normal for them as it is for everyone. The best thing a parent or caregiver can do is to help them feel comfortable while their body fights off the cold.
Colds may turn into serious illnesses, so regular checkups with a pediatrician are essential, especially if they have a high fever or show other symptoms. In newborn babies, it is essential to call a doctor at the first sign of sickness to rule out more serious conditions.