There are over 200 viruses known to cause the common cold, and chances are your baby will encounter one sooner rather than later. Babies have immature immune systems, making it less likely they’ll be able to fend off germs like the ones that cause a cold. Most babies have eight to 10 colds before they turn 2.
The good news is that most newborn colds don’t need treatment and will not progress to anything serious. While no one wants to see their sick child, exposure to viruses like the common cold can be a boon to your child’s immune system. The body will recognize and launch an attack against the germ the next time it invades.
This article will discuss the symptoms of upper respiratory infections in newborns, causes, treatments (including home remedies), and when to see a doctor.
Symptoms of a Newborn Cold
The symptoms of a newborn cold are a lot like the symptoms you’ll see in an adult. They include:
- Runny nose (mucus may be clear or yellow/green)
- Loss of appetite
- Irritability (you may notice your baby cries more or seem fussy)
- Difficulty feeding (due to nasal congestion)
- Fever, usually low grade
Symptoms generally peak on two or three days of the cold, and then gradually improve over the next 10-14 days.
While the flu (influenza) shares some symptoms with the common cold, it tends to come on quickly and make babies feel sicker. Some flu symptoms to watch for include:
- Runny/stuffy nose
- Fever (above 100 degrees)
- Being very sleepy
In babies, whooping cough (also called pertussis) can be a potentially life-threatening respiratory infection. It’s caused by a germ known as Bordetella pertussis that’s spread through the coughs and sneezes of infected people.
Whooping cough is highly contagious. Eight of 10 nonimmune people exposed to the germ will be infected.
When the infection occurs in young children, serious health complications can result. About 25% of babies treated for whooping cough will develop pneumonia (a lung infection), and 1%–2% will die.
Symptoms of whooping cough can develop five days to three weeks after exposure to the germ and, at least initially, tend to look a lot like the common cold. Early symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Mild cough (although some babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all)
- Low-grade fever
- Apnea (short lapses in breathing)
Later symptoms include:
- Violent coughing: The cough tends to be dry.
- Gasping for breath: While adults and older kids produce a “whoop” sound when they inhale after coughing, young babies don’t have the strength to produce the sound, although they will struggle for air.
- Vomiting during or after coughing fits
Croup is an infection of the upper airways caused by the same viruses responsible for the common cold. When a cough is forced through these swollen, tight airways, a sound much like the bark of a seal is made.
Croup is most often seen in the winter and in children 3 months to 5 years, with most croup cases occurring in kids about 2 years old.
Symptoms of group include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- “Barking” cough
- Whistling sound when the child inhales (known as stridor)
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
Respiratory syncytial virus causes a cold-like illness. In babies under 6 months, it can be dangerous.
It’s the most common cause of bronchiolitis (an infection that causes swelling in the small airways of the lungs, leading to breathing problems) and pneumonia in children under 1 year old in the United States. Most kids will have an infection with RSV by the time they turn 2.
In older kids and adults, RSV produces many of the same symptoms of the common cold. But in young babies, the symptoms are a bit different. The only symptoms you’re apt to see are:
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
- Breathing problems
Pneumonia is lung inflammation that can be caused by infection by viruses or bacteria (germs). The lung swelling that accompanies pneumonia can make breathing difficult.
Very young babies (under 1 month) typically don’t cough with pneumonia, but older babies will. Other symptoms to look for include:
- Rapid breathing
- Retractions (the chest pulls in while the baby is breathing)
Colds are caused by viruses (and not bacteria), with rhinoviruses being the most common culprit. Other viruses that can cause colds are the respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, common human coronaviruses, and human metapneumovirus.
The viruses are spread via droplets expelled by the coughs and sneezes of infected people. Even talking and laughing can release the droplets.
If your baby inhales those particles, touches a surface where they landed, or is unfortunate enough to have the droplets settle in their eyes, mouth, or nose, they can become infected.
Most newborn colds aren’t serious and don’t require medical treatment (but touch base with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns).
Since colds are caused by viruses, and not bacteria, antibiotics won’t be effective. However, about 5%–10% of kids will develop secondary bacterial infections, such as ear infections, that may require antibiotic treatment.
Other things to note:
- Don’t use a fever reducer, such as infants’ Tylenol (acetaminophen) in babies under 3 months without first checking with your healthcare provider. A baby that young with a fever needs medical evaluation.
- Don’t use over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medications in babies and children under 6 years old. They haven’t been shown to be effective and they may cause some serious side effects.
- Don’t give aspirin (even baby aspirin) to your child without first checking with your healthcare provider. Aspirin use in children and teens has been linked to a serious and sometimes life-threatening illness called Reye’s syndrome.
While you can’t cure your newborn’s cold, you can help ease the symptoms, including the following:
- Put a drop or two of saline nose drops in each nostril and then suction out what mucus you can with a rubber bulb. This can ease nasal congestion, which is especially important before a feeding.
- Place a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room to help thin the congestion in your baby’s lungs and nose. Be sure to clean the humidifier per the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria, which will irritate the lungs.
- Try to keep your baby’s intake of fluids up. For newborn babies, offer the breast or formula. For babies older than 6 months, you can offer water.
- Sit with your baby for about 15 minutes in a steamy bathroom (turn the hot water in the shower on and shut the bathroom door). This can help relieve congestion. Don’t leave your baby unattended. Also, keep a safe distance from the hot water.
Do Not Give an Infant Honey
Never give an infant under 1 year old honey. It is not safe. It carries the risk of infant botulism, a serious gastrointestinal illness caused by bacterial spores. Honey is sometimes used to soothe a cough in older children and adults.
When to See a Doctor
While most newborns recover fully from a cold, the infection can escalate into more serious conditions, such as pneumonia. Call your healthcare provider if your baby has any of the following:
- Trouble breathing (watch for rapid breathing, wheezing sounds, retractions, or a blue face/lips)
- Fever (under 2 months old)
- Loss of appetite
- Symptoms do not get better and last longer than 10 days
The best way to safeguard your child against respiratory infections like the cold and flu is to practice good personal hygiene, steer clear of people who you know are sick, and get appropriate vaccines for yourself and your child. Steps include:
- Always cover a sneeze or cough with a tissue or, in a pinch, your elbow.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling your baby—and especially after you’ve sneezed or coughed. Request that other caretakers do the same.
- Clean frequently touched surfaces and toys your baby handles often.
- Get a flu vaccine, have your baby vaccinated if they’re over 6 months old, and ask all your caretakers and other household members to also get a flu shot.
- Consider breastfeeding. Breast milk contains antibodies that can help your baby fight a number of infections, including those you may have already been exposed to. It also has properties that help stimulate your baby’s own immune system.
Upper respiratory infections such as colds are common in babies. Their immune systems aren’t yet fully developed, which makes it hard for them to fight off these germs.
Most babies, even newborn ones, will recover fully. But it’s important to be on the lookout for indications of trouble, such as fever, trouble breathing, and violent coughing fits. These are all signs your baby needs immediate medical attention.
A Word From Verywell
It’s natural to want to protect your child from all dangers, big and small. But germs are everywhere. Chances are that your baby will develop a cold in the first few months of life. While that can be scary, especially in newborn babies, it’s important to remember that most kids weather a cold just fine.
There isn’t much you can do to make a newborn’s cold go away any faster than Mother Nature intended, but you can help them get more comfortable with some home remedies. Don’t hesitate to call your child’s healthcare provider whenever you have questions or concerns or just want some reassurance.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do colds last for newborns?
Most newborn colds resolve in about 10 to 14 days.
How long is a cold contagious for a newborn?
Whether in a newborn or an adult, a cold can be contagious from one to two days before symptoms arise until they resolve—usually within two weeks.