I thought my 5-week-old daughter was going to die. She was clearly struggling to breathe, and she looked pale and limp. I rushed her to the emergency room at 11 p.m., fretting all the way. The diagnosis? Sadie had a virus and she was very congested, but she wasn't dying. The doctor calmly explained that it takes infants a while to learn that they can breathe through their mouth, and until they do, a stuffed-up nose can make them extremely uncomfortable. Sadie's "common cold" lasted four miserable days and four nerve-racking, sleepless nights.
If you're a new parent, your child's first cold can be pretty scary. "The only way your baby has to communicate is by crying," says Debby Clarke, a mother of two from Colorado Springs. "It's terrifying to look at the person you love more than anything and not know what's wrong or how to help."
Although babies can seem miserable, they actually tolerate colds far better than their parents do, says Charles Shubin, MD, director of the Children's Health Center at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore. "The vast majority of respiratory infections are brief and inconvenient, but not serious."
That's good news because babies can contract a lot of colds -- about six to eight a year -- due to their immature immune systems. There's no cure for a cold, which is caused by a virus that results in five to six days of upper respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and coughing. Colds are usually transmitted by touch, not from someone's sneezing in your baby's direction, as you might think. "Typically, a sick person will touch your child's hand or a shared toy and get nasal drippings on it. When your child touches that toy and then her own nose, she catches the germs," explains Dr. Shubin.
The flu is also caused by a virus, but it often lasts longer, about seven to 10 days, and in children it can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as upper respiratory symptoms, such as congestion and sneezing, and muscle aches. It's not easy to tell the difference between a cold and the flu in babies since they don't experience the dramatic onset that screams "flu" to an adult. Instead, your child may simply appear fussier and more irritable, and may run a higher fever for longer.
Although colds and flu can lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear or sinus infection, this happens in only a quarter to a third of cases, says Christopher White, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. The odds of a cold's turning into pneumonia are fewer than 1 in 20.
So when your child gets sick, your biggest challenge is to help him muddle through the cranky, stuffy days and sleepless nights. The following advice from pediatricians and moms can make the experience a lot less miserable for everyone.