There are plenty of baby firsts to look forward to, from their first smile to their first word. One that isn’t on the list? Their first baby cold. The onset of sniffles can bring about a barrage of questions for new parents: How long does a baby’s cold last? What can babies take for a cold? Are there infant cold remedies I can use? Don’t worry—most of the time, a baby cold is totally manageable. Here, experts explain the symptoms to watch for, what to do when baby has a cold and when to enlist the help of a doctor.
In this article:
Average age for baby’s first cold
Baby cold symptoms
How long does a cold last in babies?
Baby cold remedies
When to call the doctor about a baby cold
Preventing baby colds
Average Age for Baby’s First Cold
Wondering what age baby’s first cold might pop up? Unfortunately, there’s no exact answer. The average age for baby’s first cold will vary from child to child—and much of this will depend on their personal circumstances and interactions with others, says Denise Scott, MD, an Oklahoma-based pediatrician and expert with JustAnswer. “An infant in a daycare setting or with older siblings in school is likely to get one sooner than one who stays home or is an only child,” she explains.
One thing parents can know for certain? Baby will catch one (or several) cases of the sniffles. “It’s very common for babies to get colds,” says Dean Blumberg, MD, FAAP, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, California. “Kids less than one year of age will average four to six colds per year, unless they’re in day care, in which case they’ll have more contact with other children and can get even more colds.”
Baby Cold Symptoms
We’ve all had colds and can probably rattle off the standard symptoms that tend to plague adults. But an infant cold can affect babies differently, Blumberg says. Here are some common baby cold symptoms to look for:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Decreased appetite
- Slightly fast breathing (this is due to congestion, Scott says, but if baby’s breathing rapidly continuously, call your doctor)
- Apnea (episodes of not breathing, which occur instead of coughing; call your doctor if you notice this)
Of these baby cold symptoms, the first to appear will likely be a mild runny nose or nasal congestion, Scott says, followed by a cough, a decrease in appetite and a low-grade fever (under 101.5 Fahrenheit). Along with these, parents might also notice some less common symptoms, such as eye discharge and nosebleed. While uncommon, neither of these are cause for concern. “Eye discharge can develop without an eye infection,” Scott explains. “Nasal congestion can cause a small amount of eye discharge when the nasal drainage backs up through the tear duct into the eye.” As for nose bleeds, this usually happens due to “nasal membranes drying out or becoming irritated from frequent suctioning,” Scott notes. “These are typically very mild and no cause for alarm.”
One baby cold symptom that parents will want to pay attention to is baby’s breathing. It’s likely baby might experience slightly faster breathing due to congestion—but if it continues to be rapid, check in with your pediatrician immediately. If you’re uncertain if baby needs to see a doctor, Scott suggests counting their breathing rate for an entire minute. “Watch the rise and fall of baby’s chest and listen for in and out breathing,” she says. “An infant under one year should breathe less than 60 times in a full minute (count one breath as in AND out), a 1 to 2-year-old should breathe under 50 times a minute.”
Baby cold vs other illnesses
Wondering if baby has a cold or another illness, like the flu? There are actually a few ways to spot the difference between a cold and flu in babies. “The flu typically comes with higher fevers, over 102 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Gina Posner, MD, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “Baby can also have other symptoms besides congestion and cough, like vomiting or diarrhea.” Additionally, a baby cold usually has a slower onset than the flu, which tends to start suddenly. At the end of the day, though, the only surefire way to know if it’s a baby cold is to do a nasal-swab lab test at your pediatrician’s office.
Wondering how to spot the difference between a baby cold and COVID-19? According to Scott, COVID symptoms will likely extend beyond the respiratory system. (You can learn more on how to spot the differences between a baby cold and covid here.)
How Long Does a Cold Last in Babies?
The answer varies according to the type of virus that’s causing the baby cold. (For example, the rhinovirus causes a shorter range of infant symptoms, Blumberg says, whereas the adenovirus leads to prolonged symptoms.) An infant cold usually lasts between three and seven days, he says, but can linger for up to 10 days or longer.
Home Remedies for a Baby Cold
So what can you do when baby has a cold? The best infant cold remedy is some good ol’ TLC. “Antibiotics don’t help because baby colds aren’t caused by bacteria, and we haven’t developed effective antivirals except for influenza,” Blumberg says. The most important thing to do when confronted with a baby cold is to prevent your child from getting dehydrated. “Make sure they’re getting enough fluids and that the urine output is adequate,” Blumberg says. (Babies typically wet their diaper every one to three hours, though it’s normal to go half as often when they’re sick, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.) Beyond keeping baby hydrated, there are a few tricks to easing baby’s uncomfortable symptoms. Keep these natural baby cold remedies in mind:
Create a steam room. If your child is coughing a lot, bring them to the bathroom, close the door and turn the shower to piping hot until steam fills the room. The humidity will help break up the mucus, Blumberg says.
Turn on a cool mist humidifier. To help baby sleep better, use a cool mist humidifier in the nursery to combat naturally lower humidity levels at night. Avoid hot water vaporizers because they can potentially result in burns.
Suction baby’s nose. When congestion is making it hard for baby to breathe properly, remove the mucus with a nasal aspirator. If you’re using a traditional suction bulb, simply squeeze the bulb to create suction, insert the tip into baby’s nostril and slowly release.
Try saline nose drops. Sometimes baby’s mucus is too thick to effectively suction out. Break up the mucus first by putting a few drops of saline in baby’s nose and then suction it out, Scott suggests.
Keep baby flat on their back. Wondering if there are optimal sleeping positions for babies with a cold? Unlike adults, it’s not safe to have baby sleep on an incline. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies under a year old should always sleep flat on their back on a firm, non-inclined surface.
Infant cold medicine
Pediatricians generally don’t recommend using any over-the-counter baby cold medicine. “They have an unacceptably high rate of side effects and children can be harmed by those,” Blumberg says. “There’s no evidence they actually make children more comfortable.”
If a fever is causing your child discomfort, Blumberg says you can help lower baby’s temperature with acetaminophen (Tylenol) if baby is 2 months or older, or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) if baby is 6 months or older. “Many children can have a fever and aren’t bothered by it. In that case, I wouldn’t bother trying to medicate it,” he says.
When to Call the Doctor About a Baby Cold
You can generally handle a baby cold with the home remedies above—but sometimes medical attention is in order. Wondering when to worry about an infant cold or what to do if baby’s cold is getting worse? Here are the symptoms to look out for:
Trouble breathing. “If the child is having difficulty breathing or breathing very rapidly—so actively that they’re sucking in their ribs—that’s a warning sign,” Blumberg says. Wheezing is also a symptom to be on the lookout for.
Violent coughing fits. This can be a sign that your child may have something other than a baby cold—like whooping cough, for example, which can be severe.
High fever. If a baby under 6 weeks old has a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, call your pediatrician, Posner says.
Signs of dehydration. If baby isn’t wetting their diaper every six hours or so, let your pediatrician know.
Preventing Baby Colds
Of course, the best way to keep your little one safe is to prevent an infant cold from cropping up in the first place. Follow these tips to help keep those baby colds at bay:
Keep sick people away from baby. Remember, colds are contagious. “If someone says they have a slightly scratchy throat or are at the tail end of a cold, they can come visit another time,” Posner says.
Make sure people wash their hands before touching baby. Viruses can linger on people’s hands and be transmitted through touch. “Especially during the winter, when we’re often at holiday celebrations and baby is being passed around, they’re at risk of getting exposed to infections,” Blumberg says. “Make sure people wash their hands before holding the baby to prevent infection.”
Try to breastfeed. Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone, and that’s totally okay. But if you’re able to, try breastfeeding your little one. It helps build immunity, which means your little one is less likely to catch a baby cold.
About the experts:
Denise Scott, MD, is a pediatrician with JustAnswer and a pediatric endocrinologist based in Oklahoma with over 20 years of experience. She received her medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch and completed her residency at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, with a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.
Gina Posner, MD, is a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. She earned her medical degree from New York Medical College and for over 10 years has volunteered with various organizations in the US and Dominican Republic mentoring and educating children and parents on different health topics.
Dean Blumberg, MD, FAAP, is the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, California. He received his medical degree from Chicago Medical School and completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
Plus, more from The Bump:
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Dosage Chart for Infants
7 Doctor-Approved Home Remedies to Relieve Baby Congestion
What to Do When Baby Gets Sick