7 Things You Should Know About... Sniffles, Colds And Flu

Just when about of cold or flu clears up, your baby is down with another virus. Eveline Gan finds out why doctors say this is normal.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Just when about of cold or flu clears up, your baby is down with another virus. Eveline Gan finds out why doctors say this is normal.

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1 It’s normal for babies to get a runny nose, fever or cough every other month.

Healthy babies, toddlers and preschoolers catch a bout of cold or flu about six to eight times a year on average, says Dr Michael Wong, deputy medical director of Raffles Medical.

Some studies even show that babies under the age of two may fall sick up to 12 times a year – which is about once a month – adds Dr Natalie Epton, a specialist paediatrician and neonatologist at SBCC Baby & Child Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre.

This is normal and does not mean that your child has a poor immune system or is sickly, Dr Wong says.

Contrary to what Grandma thinks, colds are not brought on by exposure to cold air, so don’t over-swaddle Baby if the weather is fine. This can make her body temperature rise when she is not sick.

“In other countries, flu seasons tend to coincide with cold weather, but the truth is, they are not related. Neither are colds caused by being exposed to cool air, having wet hair or wearing wet clothes,” Dr Wong adds.

The real reason is due to babies’ immature immune system, which makes them fall sick more easily, Dr Wong explains.

But there are many other factors, too, such as being exposed to germs from an infant-care centre or unwell siblings who end up spreading the virus to the little one.

2 Most colds and flu clear up on their own in a week or two.

Both colds and flu are respiratory tract infections that can make life miserable for your baby.

But the flu tends to hit harder than a common cold as symptoms are usually more intense. Your baby may experience symptoms like fever, lethargy or feed poorly, Dr Wong says. She may also develop a runny and/or stuffy nose, sore throat and cough, Dr Epton adds.

Although these symptoms can be worrying, take heart; viruses that cause colds and flu typically clear up on their own in about a week to 10 days, and are not usually considered dangerous for most kids, Dr Epton says.

But see a doctor when you notice any of these red flags, which may signal something more serious: • fever in a baby two months old or younger.

• fever of 38.9 deg C or higher at any age.

• ear pain.

• breathing difficulties.

• your child looks pale or blue.

• excessive crankiness or sleepiness.

• signs of an infection that isn’t going away, such as a fever lasting more than three days, thick and dark-coloured phlegm as well as a worsening cough.

• your child seems to be getting worse, is lethargic and becomes increasingly irritable.

• poor feeding with signs of dehydration (look out for dry lips and mouth, sunken eyes, reduced tears, urine and activity).

3 Antibiotics won’t speed up recovery.

Both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, which means antibiotics can’t help and won’t speed up the recovery process. They work only on bacterial infections.

“Antibiotics are not effective in treating colds or flu. They may only be necessary if the cold becomes complicated by a bacterial infection like an ear infection or pneumonia,” Dr Wong says.

He cautions against giving your child any leftover or unused antibiotics as it may lead to antibiotic resistance and other side effects like an allergic reaction.

Consider a flu jab to protect your baby, as the flu tends to make your little one more miserable than the common cold. In some cases, it may also lead to dangerous infections like pneumonia.

According to the Health Promotion Board, a flu jab is recommended for kids from the age of six months to five years old. This is available at polyclinics and most private clinics.

Breastfeeding also protects against these viruses; the antibodies in breast milk help boost Baby’s immune system and ward off infections, Dr Wong says. 

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4 Skip OTC medication; give her plenty of fluids and let her rest.

According to Dr Wong, a specific treatment is usually not necessary in most cases of colds and flu. What your sick baby really needs is plenty of rest. That means shelving activities that may over-stimulate her, as well as encouraging earlier bedtimes and more naps.

Get her to take more fluids to help loosen phlegm and soothe the throat, as well as replace water lost from the body during fever, Dr Wong says. For babies under the age of six months, “fluids” mean breast milk or formula.

It is not safe to play doctor by offering your baby over-the-counter (OTC) medication like antihistamines, decongestants and cough syrup sold on the shelves of pharmacies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says OTC cough and cold medicines aren’t effective in children under six years old and can have dangerous side effects.

No medication will make your baby’s illness go away faster, but if she has a fever, infant paracetamol can help to relieve discomfort. Parents may give babies older than three months paracetamol, or ibuprofen to those older than six months, Dr Wong says. Check with your doctor about the correct dosage.

Babies under the age of three months who are running a temperature usually require a hospital stay.

5 Decongest your baby’s nose with a nasal spray.

Babies and toddlers have narrower airways than older kids and adults, which make it harder for them to clear secretions like mucus during a cold.

To ease your little one’s stuffy nose, a saltwater nasal spray is usually the only thing you will need, Dr Epton advises.

Use this with a nasal decongestant drops, which can help constrict blood vessels in the nose and reduce mucous production, if her blocked nose is severe and affects her feeding.

Some studies show that smearing some infant-friendly vapour rub on the chest of babies older than three months may help ease symptoms, Dr Epton says.

Do this only if she is older than three months. Be sure to use vapour rubs formulated for babies, and not the adult version, which may be too strong and can cause a burning sensation on the skin.

6 Switch off the airconditioning for now.

Avoid placing your child directly in front of the fan or strong air-conditioning as this may worsen the nasal congestion, says Dr Wong. Doing so may dry up and further irritate the inside lining of the nose.

Dr Wong suggests humidifying the air to ease a stuffy or runny nose. But use only cool-mist humidifiers when moistening the air in the nursery. It should be placed close to the crib or bassinet, but not within her reach.

The AAP does not recommend using warm-mist humidifiers and hot-water vaporisers as they can cause accidental burns or scalding.

7 Flu-proof your kid: start by washing your hands.

You can’t bubble-wrap your little one, but you can prevent the spread of germs by working on your hygiene habits.

According to Dr Wong, both the cold and flu viruses are spread by tiny air droplets, which are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

They can also be spread indirectly; for instance, when you touch your baby’s nose and mouth with hands that have come into contact with contaminated surfaces.

So if you are feeling unwell, put on a mask, or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Bin the tissue, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards – a simple but effective act that can prevent illness.

When your child is old enough, you can also teach her how and when to wash her hands properly.