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Ask Dr. Meg: My Baby Has a Cold

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dear Dr. Meg,

My baby has a cold, and I’m not sure what to do. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make him feel better, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I’m nervous to give him medication and am not sure if his symptoms call for a doctor’s appointment or not.

Thanks for your guidance!


First-Time Mom

Dear First-Time Mom,

If your baby is younger than eight weeks, it is important to contact your pediatrician if he has a fever over 101.0 (rectal or under the arm), or if he doesn’t have a fever but won’t eat or doesn’t seem like himself. We are more cautious with very young babies who are sick because sickness can spread rapidly.

Once your baby is past the two-month mark, there are a few things that you can do to help him feel more comfortable during the cold.

Bulb syringe: Get a bulb syringe that has a sharper point. An ear bulb syringe would work. Squeeze the air out of the syringe, place it up into your baby’s nostril and then open the bulb and suck the mucous out. If the ear syringe doesn’t work, you can buy one that uses your mouth suction to extract nasal mucous.

Saline drops: Place one saline drop in the left nostril then suction nasal mucous. Repeat on the other nostril.

No cold medications: Do not give cold medications. We used to give decongestants and cough suppressants to children under one year but found that many had reactions to them. Then, we didn’t know whether the baby had grown more sick due to the cold or the medicine!

There are ways to comfort and care for a sick baby, but cold medicine is never one of them. 

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for a fever: If your baby has a fever and appears uncomfortable, you can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen every four hours to make him feel better.

Hydration: Make sure your baby stays adequately hydrated. This means that you may need to feed him more frequently, especially since he may take less per feeding if he has trouble breathing.

See your pediatrician: Ear infections commonly follow colds so if your baby has difficulty sleeping at night (the pain is worse when lying down) and won’t settle, bring him to your pediatrician.

Common colds are caused by viruses and typically last three-five days. During that time, a toddler will have clear, white mucous, a cough, congestion and low-grade fever. If the symptoms last longer than five days, other things may complicate the cold such as:

1. Green nasal discharge. When you see a color change or the mucous getting thicker, this may be a sign that bacteria have moved in on top of the virus and your child may need antibiotics.

2. If his cough lasts longer than five days, is worse at night, makes your child almost vomit or if you hear wheezing, this is a sign that the infection has triggered an asthmatic-type lung response. It is not normal for a cough to linger for weeks.

3. If your child’s fever won’t go away after his nose and cough clear, he may have an ear infection.

4. If your toddler has chronic nasal discharge, headaches and thick mucous, it is possible for him to have a sinus infection. The sinuses are small in toddlers but can still get infected.

Children who have a cold may cough for a week or more. The type of cough is important to discern and will help you know what kind of care he needs. A cough due to a common cold will be dry and hacking, and the child may have a sore throat or hoarse voice.

Discerning what type of cough your child has will help you know what kind of care he needs. 

If, however, your child has a deeper cough that is accompanied by wheezing, makes him choke or vomit afterward, or sounds wet and gets worse when he lies down at night, he may have more than a cold. He may have bronchitis or an asthma-type of attack, secondary to the cold. In this case, you will need to take him to your pediatrician to get medications to take care of secondary symptoms.

Many children have coughs that last longer than they should. So if your child exhibits any of the above symptoms that make you suspicious that something more than a cough due to the cold is going on, call your doctor.

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