A cold is a rarity in a baby who is not yet six months old, but when it does occur, things can become serious quickly. That’s why it is critical to see a pediatrician at the first sign of high fever or other cold symptoms in these very young infants.
This advice comes from Dr. Saad Saad, a noted pediatric surgeon based in New Jersey. Dr. Saad advises parents to call their child’s doctor at early signs of sickness to ensure it’s not a more serious medical problem.
But is it possible to prevent infants from catching colds? Dr. Saad points out that germs can get into the infant’s environment despite the painstaking efforts of anxious parents and caregivers. An occasional cold is to be expected, says Dr. Saad.
Focus your efforts on helping your child feel comfortable while the tiny body’s immune system fights the cold.
In this article, Dr. Saad Saad explains how these early colds affect the infant — the vulnerability to colds, the developing immune system, and symptoms that indicate trouble. Dr. Saad will help you know when it’s time to call a doctor.
Understanding Your Baby’s immune system
For the first six months, a newborn retains immunity from their mother which makes colds less common so early, Dr. Saad Saad explains. Very soon, however, the infant’s own immune system starts developing — but at this point the infant is most prone to catching a cold.
A cold in a very young infant can be a scary situation for parents or caregivers. But encountering a non-threatening cold virus will help the infant’s body learn to fight these viruses, explains Dr. Saad.
Numerous colds will follow during that first year, and parents will come to recognize certain symptoms as signs of a cold instead of another more serious condition. Treating these colds in a newborn or infant requires gentle care at home — but is generally not viewed as a serious situation.
Signs that a newborn has a cold
Excess nasal discharge that is runny and watery, evolving into a thicker, yellowish-green discharge. These are signs of a cold in an infant. There may also be a mild fever, a positive sign that the tiny body is fighting the viral infection. Just as with adults, these are natural signs for a cold. There is no indication that the symptoms are getting worse,
More signs that a newborn has a cold:
Fussing or irritability
Difficulty nursing due to a stuffy nose
Difficulty sleeping and staying asleep
These can also be signs of croup and pneumonia, which are considered more serious. If you notice these symptoms, contact a doctor or specialist pediatrician. A doctor can conduct a diagnosis which will give concerned caregivers the advice they need.
Signs that it’s a serious condition
Newborns with croup, flu, or pneumonia will often show additional symptoms, says Dr. Saad Saad.
While an infant with croup has obvious cold symptoms, those can get worse very quickly. Trouble breathing and a barking cough are signs of croup. In some cases, the sounds may include squeaking or hoarseness in the cough.
A newborn with flu will have typical cold symptoms, but also a high fever, diarrhea and vomiting. The infant may seem sicker than when it’s just a cold. There will likely be fussiness as the newborn’s little body fights the flu.
Whooping cough, which is also referred to as pertussis, will start with a cold. Then after a week or so, the symptoms will shift into a severe hacking cough that causes breathing problems.
When the baby takes deep breaths after coughing, they may sound like a whooping noise. While this “whoop” sound may be expected in older children and adults, very few infants actually make that sound.
Typically, an infant with whooping cough will vomit after a coughing episode. The baby may turn blue very briefly in more serious cases — and can even stop breathing.
Whooping cough requires immediate medical attention as it is extremely serious, says Dr. Saad Saad.
One big risk for babies is when a cold quickly turns into pneumonia. That is why notifying a pediatrician right away is so imperative.
Pneumonia symptoms include:
Strong cough that worsens
When infants have pneumonia, they may have breathing problems — either breathing rapidly or struggling to breathe.
The baby’s lips or fingers may look blue, a sign they are not getting sufficient oxygen. Get emergency medical attention immediately.
Treatment for an infant’s cold
As the infant’s immune system is developing, parents and caregivers just need patience, says Dr. Saad Saad. The newborn requires only gentle care and comfort as the little body fights the cold.
WARNING: Avoid all over-the-counter cold medications, Dr. Saad advises. These have serious side effects and are unsafe for babies.
Prescription saline nasal drops can help provide relief for an infant’s stuffy nose. Fever-reducing medication might be appropriate for some babies; your pediatrician will advise you on that.
The best medicine for babies are a few home remedies, advises Dr. Saad Saad. Your baby’s cold symptoms may take 2 weeks before they are gone completely. Home remedies will relieve the baby’s congestion and other discomforts:
Steam: Get hot water running in the shower. Simply hold your baby in that steamy bathroom while the water runs. This will help loosen mucus from the cold. Even 10 or 15 minutes of steam will help with baby’s congestion.
Humidity: Setting up a humidifier will moisten the baby’s sleep area, relieving congestion and allowing the baby to breathe more easily.
Hydration: Keep your baby well-fed and hydrated while they fight a cold. Fever and mucus can deplete electrolytes and liquids.
Clean nasal passages: Using a rubber syringe to gently clean out your baby’s nose can also help baby’s breathing.
Rest: Let your baby sleep more during recovery. Don’t take baby to public places where there’s a chance of acquiring another virus.
If your baby’s symptoms seem to worsen, talk to your doctor right away.
Preventing baby’s exposure to cold viruses
An older baby or very young toddler is at greatest risk of catching a cold, more so than a newborn. This is because their resistance is not fully developed. When they are exposed to others with colds, their risk increases. Being around smokers also increases a baby or young child’s risk of getting a cold, advises Dr. Saad Saad.
To help prevent transmission of cold viruses to your very young child, keep in mind that cold viruses are spread through the air. They are also spread from contact with someone already infected with the virus. If that virus-carrier has no cold symptoms, you won’t know your baby is at risk. Therefore, it’s best to protect your baby from exposure in all its forms.
Hand-washing before touching the baby
Avoiding contact with sick people
Avoiding any person who has contact with a sick person
Avoiding any gathering during cold and flu season
Avoiding any exposure to secondhand smoke
Cleaning all surfaces on a regular basis, including toys
Breastfeeding to help reduce risk of colds in newborns and babies. With breast milk, the baby gets some of the mother’s antibodies, advises Dr. Saad Saad. While breastfeeding won’t prevent all contagious illnesses, it may help prevent colds. A breastfed baby may fight off infections more easily compared to formula-fed babies, says Dr. Saad.
When to see a doctor
If a baby seems unwell, always tell your doctor. When your baby has a fever, this is their first defense against an infection like a cold, says Dr. Saad Saad. He advises:
Call your doctor if your baby (under 3 months old) has a 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). If baby is under 6 months old, a fever of 101°F requires a doctor’s attention.
Whenever a newborn seems unwell, even if there is no fever, tell your doctor right away. In some cases, very young babies may not have a fever even if they have a serious infection.
If a young baby has a fever that persists for several days, take them to a doctor. If the young baby has a fever for a day or two, then it returns, they should see a doctor.
See a doctor when a baby has any other unusual symptoms, says Dr. Saad Saad.
Unusual cough or cry
Difficulty breathing normally
Physical pain or discomfort
Difficulty eating or refusing to eat
Persistent vomiting or diarrhea
When a baby appears to struggle – or seems different in any way – contact your doctor immediately. Even if you are uncertain about the symptoms, contact your doctor.
About Dr. Saad Saad, Pediatric Surgeon
Dr. Saad Saad has performed thousands of complex pediatric surgeries on children of all ages, from infants to teenagers during his 40-year medical career. Dr. Saad has served as the Surgeon-in-Chief and the Co-Medical Director of K. Hovnanian Children Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Care System in New Jersey. During the 1980s, Dr. Saad was invited to serve as pediatric surgeon for the Saudi Royal family. Over the years, he has participated in eight Medical Missions to Jerusalem to perform free complex surgeries on poor children.