Common cold in babies (2022)

In this article

  • What causes colds?
  • How do colds affect babies?
  • How do I treat a cold?
  • When should I take my baby to the doctor?
  • Can I help prevent my baby from getting colds?

It’s upsetting to watch your baby suffer his first cold. He will be uncomfortable, snuffling and may have trouble feeding. But there’s a lot you can do to ease your baby’s discomfort.

Remember too, it’s called the common cold for a reason. Your little one may get seven or more colds before his first birthday (Brennan 2016, Whelan and Gill 2017). Colds can come on quickly and the symptoms are often at their worst in the first two or three days (NICE 2016).

Colds tend to hang around longer in babies than adults, but your little one's symptoms should clear up within about two weeks (NICE 2016). A mild cough may go on for up to three weeks (NICE 2016). It’s not a serious illness, but it may mean a lot of tissues and a few long nights for you and your partner (NICE 2015).

What causes colds?

A cold is an infection of the mouth, nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). It can be caused by one of many different viruses (NICE 2016). Babies tend to get a lot of colds because their immune systems are still developing (NHS 2015a).

Colds can be spread when someone with a cold sneezes or coughs, transmitting a virus into the air to be inhaled by someone else. Colds are also spread through contact, especially hand-to-hand contact (NICE 2015). So always cover your mouth when you cough, and wash your hands after blowing your nose.

If you’re at a playdate with another baby who has a cold, avoid sharing toys. This will help to prevent spreading a cold virus (NICE 2016).

Experts aren't really sure why colds are so much more common in winter than in summer. One theory is that being cold and breathing in cold air makes it easier for the common cold to develop, but we need more research to be sure (NICE 2016).

How do colds affect babies?

If your baby has a common cold, you may notice some of the following symptoms:

  • general restlessness and irritability
  • a runny or stuffy nose (congestion)
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • fever
    (NICE 2016)

Your baby may be having trouble breathing through his nose if he’s all stuffed up, so feeding may be difficult (NICE 2016).

If your baby has previously been sleeping through the night, you’ll be reminded of those first few weeks of his life. He may wake up several times because his nose is stuffy (NICE 2016). Giving him plenty of cuddles will help him feel better.

Sometimes, a bad fit of coughing may make your baby throw up (NICE 2016). Although this can be distressing to see, it's usually nothing to worry about (Sambrook 2017). If it happens a lot, or if you have any concerns about this or any other symptoms, speak to your health visitor or GP.

Sometimes, colds can cause ear infections in young children (NICE 2016). Find out what to do if your baby gets an ear infection.

How do I treat a cold?

There's no cure for the common cold, but it should go away on its own within a few weeks (NICE 2016). In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to ease your baby's discomfort:

  • Make sure your little one gets plenty of rest.
  • Sit your baby upright when you can, as this helps him to breathe more easily (Whelan and Gill 2017).
  • Offer your baby extra breastfeeds to keep his fluids up (NHS 2015a, NICE 2016). If he's formula-fed, offer extra drinks of water instead – just be sure to boil it first then let it cool if he's under six months (NHS 2015b).
  • Infant paracetamol or infant ibuprofen can help relieve fever and pain. You can give your baby paracetamol from two months if he was born after 37 weeks and weighs more than 4kg (9lb) (MHRA 2011). You can give him ibuprofen if he is three months or older, and weighs at least 5kg (11lb) (MHRA 2016). Ask your pharmacist or GP if you’re unsure about the correct dose to give your baby.
  • Your baby is too young to blow his own nose, so help him to breathe more easily by wiping his nose for him. If your baby is having trouble feeding because of a stuffy nose, nasal saline drops (sterile salt water) may help to unblock his nose. You can buy these from your pharmacy. Apply one or two drops to each nostril 15 minutes before a feed (NICE 2016).
  • A vapour rub may help your baby to breathe more easily (NICE 2016). You can buy one from your pharmacy, but make sure you follow the manufacturer’s age guidelines as they are often only suitable from three months. Apply it to your little one's chest and back, but don’t put it on his nostrils, as this isn't safe, and will sting.
  • If the skin around your baby's nose is starting to become irritated, you can dab a little petroleum jelly on to soothe and protect it (Alli 2017). Use it sparingly, though, so your baby doesn't breathe it in or eat it.
  • Breathing in steam may help to loosen your baby’s blocked airways and relieve his cough. You could try sitting in a steamy bathroom for a few minutes, with the shower on, while holding your baby. But don’t put your baby too close to hot, steamy water, as it could scald him (NICE 2016).

Don’t give your baby any over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. They are not suitable for children under seven years because of the risk of side-effects, and there’s little evidence that they work (NICE 2016). Also avoid home remedies containing honey, which isn't safe for babies under one year (Sambrook 2017).

Does your baby need antibiotics?

GP Claire Kaye discusses whether your doctor should give your child antibiotics.More baby videos

When should I take my baby to the doctor?

It's always worth having a word with your health visitor or taking your baby to the GP if you have any concerns about his health. If nothing else, they can help to put your mind at rest and give you more tips for caring for your baby at home.

When your baby has a cold, you should take him to the GP if:

  • He's under three months old with a temperature of 38 degrees C or more, or he's three to six months old with a temperature of 39 degrees C or more (NHS 2016).
  • His symptoms are getting worse rather than better after about five days (Sambrook 2017).
  • He has had a cough for three or four weeks (NHS 2015a, Sambrook 2017).
  • He is rubbing his ears and seems irritated. This could signal an ear infection (NHS 2015a).
  • He's been producing green, yellow or brown mucus for 10 days or more (Sambrook 2017).

If at any point your little one seems to be having trouble breathing, take him straight to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) unit (NHS 2015a).

Can I help prevent my baby from getting colds?

If you’re breastfeeding, try to continue as this is one of the best ways to protect your baby’s health. It passes antibodies to your baby that will help him fight infections. It isn’t a foolproof way to protect your baby’s health, but breastfed babies are better at fending off colds and other infections (NHS 2017).

You can also protect your baby by trying to keep him away from anyone with a cough or a cold. Or ask them to wash their hands thoroughly before holding your baby (NICE 2016). When your baby does have a cold, make sure everyone in the family washes their hands often to reduce the risk of it spreading (NHS 2015a, NICE 2016).

It's never fun to see your little one under the weather, but a few extra cuddles and plenty of rest should have him back to normal in no time. Just keep those tissues handy!

You might also like:

  • Learn the difference between the common cold and flu.
  • How long will your baby's cold be contagious? Find out.
  • Think you know how to identify and treat a cold? Test your knowledge with our common cold quiz.


Alli RA. 2017. Treating colds in children. WebMD, Children's Health. [Accessed April 2018]

Brennan D. 2016. When your baby has a cold. WebMD, Children's Health. [Accessed April 2018]

MHRA. 2011. Liquid paracetamol for children: revised UK dosing instructions have been introduced. Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, UK Public assessment report. [Accessed April 2018]

MHRA. 2016. Ibuprofen 100 mg/5 ml oral suspension. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, UK Public assessment report. [Accessed April 2018]

NHS. 2015a. Colds, coughs and ear infections in children. NHS Choices, Health A-Z. [Accessed April 2018]

NHS. 2015b. Drinks and cups for babies and toddlers. NHS Choices, Health A-Z. [Accessed April 2018]

NHS. 2016. Treating a fever (high temperature) in children. NHS Choices, Health A-Z. [Accessed April 2018]

NHS. 2017. Benefits of breastfeeding. NHS Choices, Health A-Z. [Accessed April 2018]

NICE. 2016. Common cold. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Clinical Knowledge Summaries. [Accessed April 2018]

Sambrook J. 2017. Coughs and colds in children. Patient, Child Health. [Accessed April 2018]

Whelan C and Gill K. 2017. What you should know about colds in newborn babies. Healthline. [Accessed April 2018]

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