The Right Medicine
Medication won't make a cold or flu go away any faster, but it can relieve some of baby's symptoms. Still, most doctors agree that for infants, less is best. In fact, the only medicine pediatricians generally recommend for children younger than 6 months is acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin), which treat both fever and pain. Why not cold medicine? "Infants are more susceptible to its side effects, and that often outweighs the benefit," says Dr. White. Cold medicines can act like caffeine, he explains, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, making babies more irritable and even jittery. "So you have a child who's a little less stuffy but so hyped up that he can't sleep," Dr. White says. The side effects can also mask a child's real symptoms that your doctor needs to consider when making a diagnosis.
The rules are more flexible for children older than 6 months. Keep in mind, however, that sneezing and coughing are all part of the body's defense against a virus. These actions help your child clear mucus and germs from the respiratory tract and move the illness along.
"So if your child is running around, and isn't terribly bothered by a cold, I'd hold off on medicine," says Yvonne Hung, MD, a pediatrician in Montclair, New Jersey. "But if your baby is miserable -- very congested and coughing a lot -- or he can't sleep, then you can use an over-the-counter cough suppressant or decongestant."
A child with a cold may also be running a mild fever -- a sign that his body is fighting the illness. If your child is younger than 3 months old, report any fever to your pediatrician; young infants are at greater risk of getting a serious infection, the only sign of which could be a fever. For older babies and toddlers, tell your doctor about a fever if it lasts more than 24 hours, is high (101.5 degrees or more), or your child seems particularly ill. Otherwise you can bring down the fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen to make your child feel more comfortable.
The gold standard for taking an infant's temperature is a rectal thermometer (it provides the most accurate reading), but using one is a task many parents find intimidating. "My biggest recollection of Haleigh's being sick was taking her rectal temperature," says Jennifer Pine of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. "She was just a few months old and it scared the daylights out of my husband and me. We had the instructions on the floor next to her and must have read them three to four times. You would have thought we were performing brain surgery." If the prospect is too daunting, don't sweat it. Benjamin Kligler, MD, associate medical director of Beth Israel's Center for Health and Healing in New York City, says an ear thermometer is sufficiently precise. What's most important is to get an idea about whether or not your baby has a fever. But let your doctor know you used an ear thermometer when you report the temperature.
If you're cruising the drugstore aisles for an over-the-counter cold remedy, choose only single-purpose medications, such as a fever-reducer or decongestant, but not a preparation that does both or even a few things. According to Dr. White, this is to ensure that you don't accidentally overdose your baby. You might also skip the expectorants, since they're not terribly effective for kids. "Children don't cough up stuff and spit it out the way adults do -- they're more likely to swallow it," says Dr. White. "You're better off trying to keep their nose clear and keep up the fluids."