As with adults, there is no cure for a common baby cold. Through the years, colds are part of life, with babies only beginning to develop the immunities that eventually diminish cold occurrences to the average adult’s 2-4 per year. Until then, though, particularly with daycare attendance and drier indoor heated air in cold weather, expect baby to average seven colds during the first year alone. That is not only due to immature immune systems, but also because babies tend to put everything in their mouth and often are in frequent contact with older children who may not wash hands. Regardless of how a cold virus is contracted, it can produce miserable symptoms, making it invaluable for parents to have some guidelines to ease discomfort.
Since it is easy to confuse teething and flu symptoms with a cold, there are important signs that indicate baby most likely has nothing more than a cold. First, colds typically begin with either a stuffy or runny nose. The latter may appear clear at first, but usually thickens and takes on a yellowish or greenish color. Unlike the flu, which often has a fast onset accompanied by diarrhea or vomiting, a cold is usually evidenced by coughing, often before the onset of another common sign, a low-grade fever. While both colds and flu may cause elevated temperatures, usually when the temperature from a cold, technically a viral infection of the upper respiratory or nose-throat tract, decreases, fairly normal playing and eating will quickly resume. With flu or another illness, even temperature drop may not restore these activities to their normal or near-normal states.
Since dry nasal membranes, aided by indoor heating, often give viruses a foothold to begin with, help them hang on, and produce stuffiness and congestion, it is important to keep the air as moist as possible with a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer. A few drops of menthol, eucalyptus or pine oil can also be added to a vaporizer or bath to relieve congestion. Additionally, for very stuffy noses that hinder breathing and as a result, nursing or sucking, tip baby’s head back and squeeze over-the-counter saline solution into the nostrils to loosen mucus, then suction out with a nasal aspirator or rubber bulb syringe.
Fluid intake should be increased, as well, with very young babies, under four months, given breast milk or formula, while those older can have some water, even juice at six months. Parents seeking natural treatments may also wish to try a weak, lukewarm chamomile tea for babies 6 month and older.
Any baby under three months with signs of illness or a temperature over 100.4 degrees F, taken rectally, warrants a call to the doctor, as babies this young are at higher risk for colds developing into pneumonia, croup, and other complications. For those between 3 and 6 months, a temperature over 101-102 degrees F may be cause to contact the doctor, while for those over 6 months, 103 degrees F is usually the marker. Regardless of age, if a fever lasts more than two days, call the doctor. Also do so with signs of ear pulling, a worsening cough, or rapid breathing or wheezing, tearing eyes, or extreme fussiness and changes in usual habits.
Importantly, never give over-the-counter cough-cold medicines, as they are generally ineffective for those under 6 years and can, in fact be, dangerous. For fever, but never dehydration, ask the baby’s doctor if acetaminophen or ibuprofen, infant dosage, might be helpful, though acetaminophen, like Tylenol, is generally discouraged for babies under three months, and ibuprofen, like Advil or Motrin, not recommended for those under 6 months. Also, baby aspirin should not be given to babies of any age, as it causes susceptibility to Reye’s syndrome, a potentially fatal disease.
At the very least, moist air, fluids, and plenty of undisturbed rest are paramount to preventing a baby cold from worsening, and although these treatments will not hasten its disappearance, they will make baby feel more comfortable. Overall, cold symptoms usually start to improve greatly after five to seven days, but if not, it is wise to seek medical attention. Also, remember that, by getting colds and strengthening resistance to them, a child will become increasingly immune to their occurrence as he or she grows.
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