Cold Comfort: How to Treat Baby's Runny Nose

The fall and winter months are Sicky City. From the common cold to Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), learn about the most common illnesses in babies that strike during flu season, and how to treat them.

The first time my son Fletcher woke me after midnight, crying with a terrible cough and fever, I freaked out. There was no mistaking the hoarse, barking cough: He had croup. So my husband and I bundled him up and sped to the after-hours clinic. Just our luck -- it was closing down. "You could go to the emergency room," the last nurse suggested as she locked the door behind her.

But as we weighed the dangers of exposing our baby to even more germs there, we realized that en route to the clinic, Fletcher had miraculously stopped coughing. I'd heard that cool night air could help a croupy bark -- and it had! We opted to settle him at home instead.

When the temperature dips, you know what's coming: the start of the sneezing, coughing, runny-nose season. It can be scary when your child gets sick, but you can handle most maladies with rest, fluids, a few home remedies, and hugs from Mom and Dad. Get the 411 on taking care of your under-the-weather wee one.

RELATED: How to Decode Your Baby's Cough

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.

RELATED: Surviving Baby's First Cold

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.

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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.

RELATED: Croup Symptoms and Treatment


It looks like: A bad cold along with a wet cough, wheezing, and loose stools: "You'll notice mucus in your child's stools and that's exactly what it is, mucus he's swallowed, because babies don't spit it out," Dr. Cardona explains.

What's happening: Infants get bronchiolitis when a virus (usually respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV) inflames the tiniest tubes in the lungs, called bronchioles, clogging them with mucus. For many young children, this is only a minor infection. "People panic when they hear RSV," Dr. Cardona says. "Most of the scary stuff you read about happened to kids who were in the NICU, who had serious lung issues from the get-go. But if your baby was healthy before the symptoms started, she's going to be fine." Treat it like a common cold.

Call the doctor: If your munchkin refuses to eat, it's time for expert help. "Babies can't breathe and eat at the same time, so the best indicator of a problem is when your child won't breastfeed or take a bottle," Dr. Beno says. Other signs: rapid breathing, flaring nostrils, and retractions. When Wilson's son, Clark, got RSV at 3 weeks old, she counted his breaths with a stopwatch. Go to the ER if Baby is taking more than 80 breaths a minute. Doctors may try medications to open the airways, or your babe may be admitted to the hospital where she can get oxygen and IV fluids to prevent dehydration.

RELATED: Bronchiolitis Symptoms and Treatment

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.

RELATED: Whooping Cough Symptoms and Treatment


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.

RELATED: Flu Symptoms in Babies and When to Call the Doctor

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.

5 Natural Cold Remedies for Babies

Keep your lovebug content till his virus goes vamoose with these remedies.

1. Saline drops and bulb syringe

Your baby doesn't master breathing through his mouth till he?s 4 to 5 months old. When he's congested, you'll need to suction his nose so he can breathe. Mix 1/4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup water to make a saline solution. Or buy Little Noses Saline Spray/Drops or Baby Ayr Saline Nose Spray/Drops. Lay your child down and put a few drops into each nostril, wait a minute, then use a bulb syringe to suck out the secretions. Do this before meals so your baby can breathe and nurse.

2. Steamy shower

Turning on the shower and sitting for a while with your babe in the fogged-up bathroom can help clear your child's lungs and nasal passages.

3. Cool air

It's unclear why the cold quiets croup, but doctors swear by it. Too balmy where you live? "An open freezer works too," says Luke Beno, M.D.

4. Cool-mist humidifier

The moisture it releases can help Baby breathe easier.

5. Acetaminophen

If your sweetie's fussy with fever, this can lower it and put him at ease. But save it for temperatures of 101.5?F or above. "Fever is how the immune system recruits white blood cells to fight infection, so you don't want to abolish fever, just lower it," says pediatrician Hernando Cardona, M.D. Always consult the doc first.

RELATED: All-Natural Cold & Cough Remedies

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