Coughs and colds in babies

Coughs and colds in babies are very common, especially as the weather turns and the temperatures start to drop. Our experts explain how you can soothe your baby's cough or cold and when you should see a doctor.

With the weather turning colder and winter illnesses going around, your baby might be more likely to pick up a cold or cough, so we’ve got some helpful advice on coughs and colds in babies.

From how to comfort your baby at home and how to tell if they have flu to when you should take them to see the doctor, we’ve hopefully got an answer for all of your questions.

As your baby gets older and stronger, they are more likely to catch a cold or cough. This will probably make them clingy and fretful. They may want to stay close and may wake more often at night needing comfort. If they refuse feeds because their nose is blocked, you can try to unblock their nose by very gently syringing out the mucus.

Ask your chemist for the right product to do this. If possible, feed on demand, little and often, making sure they get plenty of fluids.

Another way to help relieve congestion in older babies is to put a few drops of a decongestant on a piece of clothing or fabric tied to the side of the cot, or use a gentle vapouriser. Your pharmacist or family doctor will be able to advise you on the appropriate medication for your baby.

How do I know it’s just a cold and not flu?

Family doctor, Dr Lowri Kew, says: ‘Colds tend to come on gradually. Babies may have a stuffy nose and mild temperature and will probably sleep more. They may also go off their feeds, both because they feel unwell and because their stuffy nose makes feeding difficult.

It can be hard to distinguish colds from flu, particularly in winter, when both are common. Flu symptoms are usually more severe, although this varies from case to case. Flu tends to start suddenly, with a higher body temperature, and leaves a child feeling extremely weak.

Whenever you have a viral illness, such as a cold or flu, you’re more prone to getting a second bacterial infection on top of it. This may cause a chest or ear infection, sinusitis or tonsillitis. These can occur without a cold and may also be caused by viruses – all this can make it quite hard to know exactly what it is you’re suffering from.’

When should I see a doctor about my baby’s cold or cough?

  • Babies can’t tell you what’s wrong and usually different illnesses, from colds to meningitis, have similar symptoms, such as going off feeds. A little one’s condition also tends to change rapidly: they get sick quickly and have fewer reserves than adults to cope with illness.
  • A high temperature (over 38°C) should be checked out by a doctor, especially if it’s persistent and if you can’t lower it with medicine or tepid baths. The higher a baby’s temperature, the sooner you should seek help: a little one with a temperature of 40°C should be seen that day.
  • If your child stops eating, is drinking less and becomes lethargic or uninterested in what’s going on, take them to a doctor. If they develop a rash, gets worse after the first four or five days or isn’t improving after a week, it’s time to head to your GP.

Everything you need to know about common childhood illness

How to tell if a cough or cold is serious:

According to Dr Lowri Kew, working out the cause of a cough can be hard even after examination by a doctor. ‘If your child is unwell or you’re worried, seek medical help,’ she advises.

  • Croup is usually seen in children under two, and starts with a temperature and hoarse voice. The characteristic barking cough is worse at night.
  • Bronchiolitis tends to affect babies under six months (although can be up to one year). It starts like a cold, which progresses to an irritable cough, an increased rate of breathing and difficulty feeding over two – three days.
  • Chest infections affect children of any age. Typical symptoms include a higher temperature (up to 38º C), going off food, an increased rate of breathing and a cough.
  • Older children who complain of a headache may have sinusitis. They may have a temperature and a cough at night, as mucus drains down the throat.
  • Asthma is more common if there’s family history of it. It doesn’t cause a high temperature unless there’s also a chest infection. Symptoms include a cough at night or wheezing with exercise, infection or at other times. In an acute attack, a child may breathe faster, cough, wheeze or draw in the skin between his ribs as he breathes.
  • Whooping cough can start with a runny nose, progressing to a dry cough that occurs in bursts. After a bout of a hacking cough, a little one will breathe in, and in older children this may sound like a whooping noise. The child may vomit and is likely to be exhausted. The cough may last for several months and can occur even in vaccinated children.