The Common Cold in Babies: What to Know

Common colds (also known as “head colds”) are, as the name implies, very common. On average adults can expect to catch two to three colds a year, but this number climbs to up to eight to 10 when you look at children and infants. Babies are particularly prone to viral infections like this because their immune systems aren’t fully formed and their activities (especially touching things, sucking on fingers, and putting things in their mouth) can put them in harm’s way.

Catching common colds is a normal aspect of development, and a vast majority of cases aren’t dangerous or fatal. It’s important for parents to realize that some symptoms that arise can be signs of more dangerous conditions, such as influenza (flu), pertussis (whooping cough), and pneumonia, among others. While there’s no outright cure or vaccine for the common cold, home-management and prevention strategies can help.

This article covers the basics of the common cold in infants, covering the signs of this illness and management and prevention strategies.

Home Remedies for Treating an Infant Cold - Illustration by Laura Porter

Verywell / Laura Porter

Symptoms of a Newborn Cold

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of the common cold. As a caregiver, though, it’s important to be able to assess if your infant has caught one. Here are signs and symptoms that may indicate an infection:

  • Runny nose (clear discharge at first, and often becoming thicker and yellow or green)
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Fever (temperature of about 101-102 degrees)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heavier drooling (due to sore throat and difficulty swallowing)
  • Irritability, fussiness
  • Swollen glands
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (in some cases)

Can Being Cold Cause a Cold?

Most cold infections in the U.S. occur during the colder months, from December to March. However, being cold isn’t linked to this disease. The higher rate of cases in infants and children during these months because occurs because more time is spent indoors and in close contact with others. This spurs transmission.

Is It an Infant Cold or Something More Serious?

As their immune systems fight off the infection, colds in infants usually resolve on their own within seven to 10 days of infection. If symptoms worsen and/or last longer than that, it can be a sign of something more serious. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to look out for.  

 Flu

Flu is an upper respiratory infection of one of three types of influenza viruses. Though some symptoms are shared with colds, this potentially fatal condition is much more severe, and it can progress to pneumonia (an infection of the lungs).

How can you tell if your baby has flu? In contrast to cold, this disease causes:

  • Higher fever (temperature above 103-105 degrees)  
  • Stuffy nose or no discharge
  • More severe coughing and hacking
  • More fatigue
  • Sneezing only in some cases
  • Signs of sore throat (excess drooling) only in some cases
  • Longer duration of symptoms

If you suspect your child has flu, get medical help. This condition can be particularly dangerous for infants and toddlers.

Croup

Croup is another respiratory infection that affects infants and children from 3 months to 5 years old. It arises due to inflammation of the vocal cords caused by some cases of flu, parainfluenza, measles, and bacterial infections (called “bacterial tracheitis”). It's primarily characterized by a prominent barking-like cough and a hoarse voice.

These are telltale signs of this condition, which also causes:

  • Low-grade fever for one to two days before the onset of cough
  • Cough is generally worse for the first one or two nights
  • Stridor, a harsh grating or whistling sound when breathing

In most cases, croup coughs resolve on their own with at-home management within five to six days. Seek medical care if symptoms persist or are recurrent.

Whooping Cough

A vaccine-preventable disease, pertussis (whooping cough) sets on much like the common cold, causing mild fever, cough (in some), and runny nose. However, as it progresses, typically after one to two weeks, several features differentiate this condition:

  • Coughing fits (paroxysm), followed by a high pitched “whoop” sound when inhaling
  • Vomiting following the paroxysm
  • Extreme fatigue

If untreated, these symptoms can last for up to 10 weeks, worsening as whooping cough progresses. Seeking care is critical in these cases.

Disrupted Breathing

Instead of coughing fits, whooping cough in some infants can cause breathing to stop, and there’s a blueish color to the lips or skin. Get help immediately as this is a medical emergency.

Pneumonia

An infection of the lungs, pneumonia can arise due to a wide range of bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, including the common cold. How can you tell your infant may have pneumonia? Here’s a breakdown:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Difficulty breathing and wheezing
  • Very rapid breaths
  • Chest retraction, rather than expansion, when breathing
  • Fever may or may not be present

When to Get Help

In severe cases, pneumonia in infants can cause convulsions, difficulty feeding and lack of appetite, and hypothermia (a dangerous drop in temperature). All signs of this illness prompt medical attention, but these signs prompt emergency care.

Bronchiolitis

Another infection of the lungs, bronchiolitis primarily affects 3 to 6-month-olds, though children up to 2 years old are susceptible. Like others, it may begin with symptoms of more mild respiratory infection; however, these get worse within a couple of days. Signs of bronchiolitis are similar to pneumonia and include:

  • Wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Breathing interruptions that cause bluish skin (a medical emergency)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Severe cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Chest retraction when breathing
  • Widening of nostrils during breathing

In most cases, these symptoms clear up within seven days, and many cases are mild. However, duration longer than that, breathing interruptions, chest retraction, and nostril widening all prompt medical attention.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Primarily affecting infants, older adults, as well as adults with compromised immunity, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another common airborne respiratory infection. RSV usually arises as cold-like symptoms, but some cases progress to bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Otherwise healthy infants generally don’t need hospitalization for this condition. Studies have found only 1% to 2% of infected babies under 6 months require additional care.

Treatment for Infant Cold

Unfortunately, with the common cold, there is no outright cure. The aim of treatment is to do what you can to let your child feel comfortable and get rest as their immune system fights off the infection. A range of approaches can help.

Home Remedies

The frontline of cold treatment involves steps you can take at home, with aim of keeping the baby comfortable, and ensuring they’re getting plenty of rest and fluids. Give formula or breastmilk to those under 6 months, with some water being OK to add for those older.

A number of techniques can help you manage your baby’s runny nose and congestion. These include:

  • Saline and suck: To clear mucus out, apply drops of saline solution (available over-the-counter in pharmacies) into your baby’s nostrils about 15 minutes before feeding. After a few minutes, use a rubber bulb to draw out the solution. With clear sinuses, it’s easy for the baby to breastfeed or bottle-feed.    
  • Petroleum jelly: A small amount of petroleum jelly can help to ease soreness and tenderness in your baby’s nostrils. Apply this carefully and without blocking the nasal passages.
  • Humidifier or vaporizer: The cool, damp air from a humidifier or vaporizer in your baby’s room can help ease a sore throat and loosen mucus. For safety reasons, avoid hot water humidifiers, and make sure filters are clean and dry before use.   
  • Steaming together: If you don’t have a humidifier, sitting with your baby in the bathroom with the doors closed and the hot water of the shower on can create a homemade steam room. This, too, will help with mucus build-up and rawness or dryness in the throat.     

Cold Medicine for Babies

While there are decongestants, pain relievers, or other symptom managing medications made for children, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stresses that none of them are recommended for those under the age of 2. The risk of side effects is too high.

If your baby is struggling with cold symptoms, talk to your doctor about what you can do. Only give them medications if told to do so by a healthcare professional.   

When to See a Doctor

If your baby is experiencing a cold, there are several signs that prompt medical attention. Seek emergency care and call your doctor if your child has:

  • Fever above 100.4 degrees in newborns under 2 months
  • Fever lasting over four days
  • Bluish color to lips or skin
  • Labored or affected breathing, such as wheezing, stridor, or retraction while inhaling.
  • Fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • Lack of hunger or thirst as well as decreased urination (a sign of dehydration)
  • Crankiness or sleepiness that’s worse than usual
  • Symptoms worsen or last longer than 10 days

Causes of Colds in Newborns and Prevention

Common cold is a respiratory infection that can arise due to infection by over 200 viruses, with the rhinovirus the most common cause. These viruses transmit via droplets in the air and can survive on surfaces.  

Causes

The common cold is a respiratory infection that can arise due to infection by over 200 viruses, with the rhinovirus the most common cause. Viruses are expelled in droplets when a sick person exhales or coughs, and they can survive on surfaces. Transmission occurs when they access a baby’s mucus membranes (the soft tissue of the inside of the nose, in the mouth, or in the eyes).

But how do babies come in contact with the viruses that cause common colds? Several ways:

  • Touch: Viruses on toys, surfaces, or other objects easily get onto the skin, or can be spread as babies touch one another.  
  • Sucking on objects: Related to the above, infants’ tendencies to pick up and chew objects are frequently the root of common cold transmission.
  • Close contact: Close proximity to infected individuals—whether they be adults changing diapers, or other kids in daycare—can also lead to infection.
  • In the air: Breathing the same air as infected people is another common means of transmission as the virus travels in exhaled or coughed-out droplets.

Risk Factors

By nature, infants are at higher risk of contracting common cold than adults because their immune systems aren’t fully formed. Several other factors can increase the chances of babies catching it:

  • Other infections, autoimmune disorders, or compromised immunity
  • Being in daycare or in regular close contact with others
  • The colder months—between December and March—see high rates of colds because of increased time spent indoors

Complications

Several conditions can result if common cold cases progress and worsen. These complications include:

Prevention

Keys to the prevention of common cold in infants and children include:

  • Ensuring proper handwashing and teaching these habits
  • Cleaning surfaces, toys, and other objects thoroughly and regularly
  • Using hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol
  • Teaching healthy habits, such as not touching the mouth, eyes, or nose
  • Keeping your child isolated from those who are infected

Summary

Common colds in babies are very common, and, in most cases, they can be effectively managed at home. In infants, they cause runny nose, sneezing, coughing, mild fever, excessive drooling, and restlessness, among other symptoms.

Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days, trouble breathing or wheezing, and high or prolonged fever warrant medical attention and may be signs of another infection or complications. Medications are almost never prescribed to infants, and the aim of treatment is to ensure they get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and symptoms are managed.

A Word From Verywell 

It can be tough for caregivers to see their babies suffering from colds. However, it’s important to remember that this condition is very common; in fact, catching colds helps infants’ immune systems develop. If your child is sick, stay vigilant and be proactive about delivering care; make sure they’re resting and drinking fluid.

If anything seems off, or you’d like to learn more about managing symptoms, talk to the child’s healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does a cold last in babies?

    In infants, the symptoms of colds arise within 48 hours of infection. These usually resolve within seven to 10 days, though they can last up to two weeks. If symptoms last longer than that—and especially if they worsen—get medical help.

  • How do you treat a baby with a cold?

    If your child has a cold, the main goals of treatment are to ensure they get plenty of rest and are drinking enough fluids. For infants under the age of 2, medications, even over-the-counter ones, shouldn’t be given without a doctor’s recommendation or prescription. To ease symptoms, here’s what you can try:

    • Apply saline solution to your child’s nostril 15 minutes before feeding to loosen mucus. After a few minutes, use a rubber bulb to pull everything out.
    • Use petroleum jelly to help with sore or irritated nostrils.
    • Increase humidity in your child’s bedroom with a humidifier or vaporizer.
    • Sit with your child in a homemade steam-room: your bathroom with doors closed and the shower on.
  • When should I be concerned about my baby's cold?

    While most cases of cold resolve on their own and don’t require medical attention, it’s important for parents to know the signs that help is needed. Call 9-1-1 if you see:

    • Lips or skin are turning blue
    • Complete loss of appetite
    • High fever (temperature above 101.3 degrees)
    • Vomiting

    Additionally, symptoms getting worse or persisting after 10 days warrant a call to your child’s healthcare provider.  

  • Do baby colds go away on their own?

    In most cases they do. If there are no complications, or the symptoms aren’t arising due to other conditions, common cold in infants resolves within seven to 10 days. This occurs as the immune system fights off the infection.

  • What are the stages of a cold in babies?

    In infants, colds progress through three stages. Here's a breakdown:

    • After a baby is infected, there is an initial 24 to 72 hour period, characterized by fussiness and (often) mild fever, with generally clearer mucus.
    • Following that is full onset of the condition, which lasts several days. At this point there may be fever breaks, the mucus turning yellow or green, and sneezing or coughing, among other symptoms.
    • Generally, there’s a final few days when the baby has more energy, but some aspects of the infection linger.
  • Should babies sleep more with a cold?

    Ensuring plenty of rest is a cornerstone of managing a cold, so babies should be getting more rest. If possible, let them sleep as much as they need. Notably, sleep at night is often interrupted in infant cold cases due to the cold symptoms.



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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. National Institutes of Health. Pneumonia.

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