Surviving Baby's First Cold and Flu Season

Meet the Enemy

We asked pediatricians for the quick and dirty on the season's offenders that strike babies most.

The Common Cold

What it looks like: Watch for the usual signs: a runny nose, congestion, cough, and fever. Your babe may also have difficulty sleeping and eating. (It's hard for an infant to nurse or take a bottle when his nose is stuffed up.)

When to call the M.D.: If he's a newborn, right away. "In a baby under 6 months, each cold could be serious," says Mary Ian McAteer, M.D., a pediatrician in Indianapolis. Your doctor will want to check and see if he's struggling to eat, breathe, or sleep.

How it's treated: Gently clear his nasal passages using saline drops and a bulb syringe, and run a humidifier in his room to keep the air moist. But never elevate the head of his crib mattress or let him sleep sitting up in a car seat -- both are unsafe, Dr. McAteer says.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What it looks like: In adults and older babies, RSV looks like a common cold. But if it infects a newborn's lungs, your baby may develop bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Keep an eye out for wheezing, trouble breathing (her chest will pull in when she tries to get air), and a high fever.

When to call the M.D.: Pick up the phone anytime your infant is coughing or wheezing. If her breathing seems especially labored, get her to a doctor immediately, says Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri.

How it's treated: Because RSV is particularly dangerous for preemies and babies with congenital heart or lung problems, your M.D. may recommend a monthly shot that could help reduce the severity of RSV. If she does get sick, soothe with saline drops, a bulb syringe, and a humidifier. Ask before using a fever reducer.


What it looks like: Croup is easily distinguished by its barking, seal-like cough. The sound usually gets worse at night, and it may scare you.

When to call the M.D.: Anytime your baby is making odd noises, you should call your pediatrician's hotline. Croup is so obvious that doctors can often diagnose it by listening to it over the phone, Dr. Jackson says.

How it's treated: You'll be told to sit in a steamy bathroom or take Baby for a walk in the cool outdoors. If the coughing hasn't subsided in 15 to 20 minutes, or if you can see her ribs pulling in, head to the doc's office or the ER. She may need medication to open her airways.


What it looks like: Your tot may have a cough, a runny nose, and vomiting. One of the biggest indicators? Fever. Babies with flu run higher temps than those with a cold, and are less likely to play and eat through it. The good news: Getting your family vaccinated can prevent flu.

When to call the M.D.: Don't take flu-like symptoms lightly: More than 20,000 U.S. children under 5 are hospitalized each year with flu complications, and tots under 2 are especially vulnerable. Call your pediatrician: She can test for influenza simply by swabbing Baby's nostrils.

How it's treated: If the flu test comes back positive, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu. Ask her about using a fever reducer too. Feed Baby as frequently as you can, even if it's small amounts at a time, to get him the nutrition he needs.

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

What it looks like: Whooping cough starts off like a cold, but after a week or two, your baby may develop a severe hack, followed by a whooping sound. Pertussis can be preventable with the vaccine.

When to call the M.D.: Babies with pertussis often become so lethargic that they can't eat -- even before the cough sets in. Call your doctor at the first sign of trouble. About half of infants under a year will need to be hospitalized.

How it's treated: An antibiotic called azithromycin is used to treat the infection. Your baby will need to stay in the hospital if she has a severe cough with vomiting or labored breathing, or if she actually stops taking air in for short periods.

Is It A Stomach Bug?

If your baby has diarrhea and vomiting, he may have the highly contagious norovirus, the top cause of "stomach flu." He should recover within a few days. In the meantime, keep him hydrated by nursing or bottle-feeding him small portions frequently. Call the doctor if he seems to be in pain or is too tired to drink; if you spot blood; or if he shows any signs of dehydration, such as a sunken soft spot on the top of his head, splotchy skin, or dry diapers.

How to Give Your Baby Medication
How to Give Your Baby Medication

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of American Baby magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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