Have you ever had a cold or the flu? If so, you probably remember how miserable you felt, between the sneezing, coughing and a sore, achy body!  Respiratory infections are just no fun — and they can happen to babies just like they happen to big kids.

Here’s what you should know about respiratory infections in babies.

What is a Respiratory Infection?

A respiratory infection happens when a baby’s nose, throat, or lungs gets invaded by a bacteria or virus.  This is actually a common problems for babies, and some doctors estimate that even a regular, healthy baby can have between 6 and 8 respiratory infections in a year!  These infections can be spread when a baby breaths in droplets that hang out in the air after someone else has coughed or sneezed or touches an object — such as a toy — that has the virus or bacteria on it.

Which Babies are at Risk for Respiratory Infections?

All babies can – and do — get respiratory infections at some point in their lives. However, some babies are more likely to get them than others. These include babies who:

  • Go to daycare (this is because they can catch infections from the other babies there)
  • Are under 6 months old
  • Were born early (these are called premature babies or “preemies”)
  • Have a weak immune system
  • Have been exposed to cigarette smoke

The time of year can make a difference, too. Babies — like big kids and grown-ups — are more likely to get a respiratory infection in the fall, winter or early spring.

How Do You Know if a Baby has a Respiratory Infection?

When a baby has a respiratory infection, chances are you are going to know about it pretty quickly!  Typical signs and symptoms for this include:

  • A runny or stuffed-up nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Low fever (usually under 100 degrees)
  • Poor sleeping
  • Lack of appetite or poor feeding
  • Fussiness and irritability, crying
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (though not all babies will have this)

How Do You Treat a Respiratory Infection?

Most of the time, a respiratory infection can be treated right at home.  Treatment measures can include:

  • Irrigating a baby’s nose with saline solution, a mild salt water solution than can help clear the nasal passages
  • Suctioning excess snot out of the nose with a bulb syringe. This may sound gross, but babies can’t blow their noses the way big kids do and this can help them to breathe easier!
  • Infant Tylenol or ibuprofen to help with body ache and fever. Children should never be given aspirin, however, because it can lead to a rare but serious complication called Reye’s syndrome.
  • Sometimes doctors will have to prescribe an antibiotic if the baby has a bacterial infection. These medications won’t work on an infection caused by a virus, however.
  • Parents will sometimes put a humidifier in the baby’s room. This keeps the air moist and makes it easier for the baby to breathe.
  • Parents should not give their baby an over-the-counter cold formula unless the doctor says it is ok.
  • Parents will also try to get their baby to drink as much as possible in order to not get dehydrated.

When Should You Call the Doctor?

Parents should call the doctor about their baby’s respiratory infection if the baby:

  • Is not getting better with treatment – or seems to be getting worse.
  • Has a fever of over 100.5
  • Is feeding and sleeping poorly
  • Shakes head or pulls ears
  • Has difficult or rapid breathing
  • Is showing signs of RSV (see section below)

Once the doctor sees the baby, he or she will often make a diagnosis of a respiratory infection based on the baby’s signs and symptoms and a physical exam.  Sometimes, doctors will also take swabs from the baby’s throat or nose to send to a lab to find out what kind of virus or bacteria is causing the infection.

What Is RSV?

RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It is a more serious form of a respiratory infection that babies can pick up, especially if they were preemies.  Babies with RSV will have a high fever, thick discharge from their nose and will have a cough with phlegm that might be yellow, green or gray. Doctors will often put babies on a medication called palivizumab to help prevent RSV if they are at a high risk.  Treating RSV can be more difficult and sometimes babies will need to be put in the hospital to help them get better.

Why is Diagnosis and Treating a Respiratory Infection Important?

Diagnosing and treating a respiratory infection is important because there can be complications, or things that make an illness worse or harder to manage. In babies, the most common complications are:

  • Dehydration
  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections

Babies who get dehydrated or get pneumonia may also have to be put in the hospital for extra care.

How do You Prevent Respiratory Infections?

The best way to treat a respiratory infection is to prevent it in the first place!  There are several ways to prevent respiratory infections, including:

  • Not going out in public a lot during cold and flu season
  • Washing hands often and before touching the baby
  • Staying away from people who have a respiratory infection
  • Making sure the house — and objects like toys — stay clean
  • Getting the flu shot every year once a baby turns 6 months old and making sure that other vaccines are up to date as well.

So now you have the low-down on respiratory infections in babies! While sometimes these infections can be serious, more often your parents will be able to take care of the baby right at home while he or she gets better.