What to know about congestion in babies
Babies may experience congestion in their nose (called nasal congestion), or it may sound as though the congestion is in their chest. The symptoms differ depending on where the congestion occurs.
Nasal congestion is more likely, and if the baby is happy and feeding normally, this is normal and the baby is likely fine.
However, caregivers can help relieve a baby's congestion using a rubber suction bulb to remove excess mucus. Other home remedies, such as using a humidifier and administering nasal saline drops, can also help relieve the baby's discomfort.
This article provides an overview of baby congestion. We look at its causes, symptoms, and treatments and discuss when to see a doctor.
Cigarette smoke, viruses, and exposure to dry air are among possible causes of congestion in babies.
Babies can get congested when they breathe in cigarette smoke, pollutants, viruses, and other irritants. Their bodies produce extra mucus in the nose and airways to trap and remove these irritants.
Exposure to dry air and other weather conditions can also trigger excess mucus production and congestion.
Babies are more likely than older children to get congestion because their nasal passages and airways are small and not yet mature.
Possible causes of nasal congestion include:
- breathing in dry air
- changes in weather
- viral infections, such as a cold
- breathing in air pollutants
- a deviated septum
Congestion that develops deeper in the baby's chest may have a more serious cause, such as:
- cystic fibrosis
- bronchiolitis, which respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) usually causes
- transient tachypnea, which typically only occurs in the first day or two after birth
Premature babies may experience more congestion than full term babies.
The symptoms of baby congestion may vary based on the location of the congestion. It can be difficult to tell where the congestion is, as babies are small and their airways are not very far apart.
If the baby has a runny nose or mucus in their nose, they may have nasal congestion. Nasal congestion is the most common. A baby may sound congested in their nose, such as from breathing in dry air, without actually being sick.
True "chest congestion," when there is fluid in the airways of the lungs, is less common. It tends to develop only when there is illness. A baby who sounds congested but is otherwise healthy — such as appearing happy, feeding and sleeping normally, and not having a fever — is likely fine.
When a baby has a congested nose, caregivers may notice the following symptoms:
- noisy or more noticeable breathing
- snoring when asleep
- mild difficulty when feeding
- a blocked nose
- a runny nose
When a baby has congestion in their chest, symptoms can include:
- rapid breathingwheezing when breathing
- labored breathing
- difficulty feeding
Giving a baby a warm bath may help to clear congestion.
Home remedies for baby congestion focus on providing care and comfort. If illness is the cause of the congestion, caregivers can help manage the symptoms of congestion while waiting for the illness to pass.
They can often relieve nasal congestion using a suction bulb, or a nasal syringe. These are soft rubber bulbs that can suck mucus from the nose.
People can find suction bulbs in drug stores or choose from several brands online.
Steps that a caregiver can take to help their baby feel better include the following:
- Provide warm baths, which can help clear congestion and offer a distraction.
- Keep up regular feedings and monitor for wet diapers.
- Add one or two drops of saline to their nostril using a small syringe.
- Provide steam or cool mist, such as from a humidifier or by running a hot shower.
- Gently massage their nasal bridge, forehead, temples, and cheekbones.
- Remove potential allergens or pollutants from the home's air by vacuuming up pet hair, not burning candles, and not smoking.
- Use gentle suction to help clear the nasal passageway, particularly before feeding.
- Wipe away excess mucus with a soft, dry tissue or cloth.
Caregivers should not use vapor rubs on babies. Some researchers, who tested their hypothesis in ferrets, believe that vapor rubs can be harmful to young children.
A caregiver should also never give a baby cold or flu medication. If the congestion is severe or there are other symptoms of concern, they should schedule a medical appointment for the baby.
When to see a doctor
Most cases of congestion in babies are minor and should clear up within a few days. People may wish to talk to the baby's doctor if the congestion is severe or lasts for a long time, especially if they are concerned about the baby's ability to breathe.
Talk to the baby's doctor or take them to the emergency room right away for signs of respiratory problems such as:
- a breathing rate of more than 60 breaths per minute that interferes with feeding or sleep; babies naturally breathe faster than older children, usually at a rate of 40 breaths per minute or 20–40 breaths during sleep
- rapid or hard breathing that makes feeding difficult
- flaring nostrils, which is a sign that the baby is struggling to take in air
- retractions, which occur when the baby's ribs suck in on each breath
- moaning or grunting after each breath
- a blue tint to skin, especially around lips or nostrils
If the baby does not wet their diapers, starts to vomit, or has a fever, call a pediatrician. Speak to them about what to do if this occurs after hours, which may include taking the baby to the emergency room or an urgent care center.
Caregivers should not hesitate to call their baby's pediatrician if they are worried.
A person should get advice from a doctor if a baby's congestion becomes severe or lasts for a long time.
To determine the cause of their congestion, a pediatrician will need to examine the baby and ask the caregiver questions about any other unusual symptoms.
Part of the examination will involve taking the baby's temperature and other vital signs, as well as observing their breathing.
If the pediatrician is not sure of the cause, they may order an X-ray of the chest. They may also check for infections such as RSV or influenza.
Mild to moderate congestion is common in babies and should only last for a few days.
If a caregiver is concerned about a baby's ability to breathe or their baby is under 3 months old and has a fever, they should seek medical help as soon as possible.
If the congestion interferes with a baby's ability to feed or sleep, or if their baby is older than 3 months and has a fever, they should talk with their baby's pediatrician.
A healthcare provider will be able to diagnose the issue and provide additional care if symptoms do not improve.
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