Mother and baby

When to see a GP, how to tell when a cough’s not an average cough and what else you need to know when your baby gets one of those many newborn colds.

1. Baby coughs and colds are incredibly common

It’s normal for babies to have eight or more colds a year as they have no immunity to cold viruses (NHS Choices, 2017a). Colds last longer in younger children, hanging around for 14 days or even three weeks in babies, compared with adult colds that last around seven (NICE, 2016).

2. There are some treatments for baby coughs, colds and blocked noses

  • Make sure your baby is drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Use saline nose drops to help loosen dried snot and relieve a stuffy nose.
  • Make sure your child eats healthy food.
  • Use children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen if your child has a fever, pain or discomfort, checking the label for age limits and conditions.

(NICE, 2016; NHS Choices, 2018a)

3. Don’t worry if babies lose their appetite

If babies are on solids and are not eating well, don’t panic. They’ll eat normally when they’re well – as do adults. So in the meantime, as long as they’re drinking and it doesn’t go on for too long, don’t worry about it (NICE, 2016).

4. You can avoid newborn colds. To an extent…

Make sure you wash your baby’s hands regularly and don’t let them share towels or cups etc. with someone who has a cold (NHS Choices, 2017b). In the end though, if they’re picking up toys at baby groups with 15 cold-ridden newborns, it’s probably a losing battle. Just see it as good for their immune system.

5. Don’t give children under six months over-the-counter cough and cold remedies

Unless advised by a GP or pharmacist (NHS Choices, 2018a).

6. Baby colds are generally not a reason to see a GP

If your baby is feeding, drinking, eating and breathing normally and there's no wheezing, there isn't usually anything to worry about. However, see your GP if:

  • They have a high temperature and they’re breathless.
  • The cough continues for a long time, especially if it's worse at night or when they run around.
  • They have trouble breathing – in this case, contact your GP whatever time of day it is.
  • Their cough has lasted for more than three weeks.
  • Their cough gets very bad or quickly gets worse.
  • They have chest pain.
  • They are losing weight for no reason.
  • The side of their neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands).
  • They have a sore throat lasts for more than four days.
  • If their sore throat makes them unable to swallow fluids or saliva.

(NHS Choices, 2017b)

7. Baby colds can lead to an ear infection

Ear infections are common and often turn up on the back of a cold. Symptoms include:

  • earache
  • fever
  • being sick
  • lack of energy
  • difficulty hearing
  • discharge running out of the ear
  • feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
  • itching and irritation in and around the ear
  • scaly skin in and around the ear.

(NHS Choices, 2018b)

Young children and babies with an ear infection might:

  • rub or pull their ear
  • not react to some sounds
  • be irritable or restless
  • be off their food
  • keep losing their balance.

(NHS Choices, 2018b)

Most ear infections get better by themselves within about three days. See a GP if the ear infection is not clearing up (NHS Choices, 2018a).

Also, see your GP if your child has:

  • a very high temperature or feels hot and shivery
  • severe earache for more than three days  
  • swelling around the ear
  • pus coming from the ear
  • something stuck in the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • vomiting, a severe sore throat or dizziness
  • regular ear infections
  • a long-term medical condition like diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • a weakened immune system.

The best ways to treat an ear infection are:

  • painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen  
  • warm or cold flannel on the ear
  • removing discharge with cotton wool
  • not putting any oil, eardrops or cotton buds into their ear (unless your GP advises to)
  • not letting water or shampoo get into their ear.

(NHS Choices, 2018b)

To help avoid more inner ear infections:

  • Make sure vaccinations are up to date.
  • Keep babies away from smoky environments.
  • Take dummies away after six months old.

(NHS Choices, 2018b)

To help avoid outer ear infections:

  • Don’t stick cotton wool buds or fingers in their ears.
  • Don’t use ear plugs or a swimming hat over their ears when they swim.
  • Avoid water or shampoo getting into their ears.
  • Treat conditions that affect their ears, like eczema or an allergy to hearing aids.

(NHS Choices, 2018b)

8. Don’t confuse whooping cough with a cold

The first symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis) are similar to those of a cold so it’s important to be aware of it. Babies under six months old are usually those most severely affected by whooping cough, which is very contagious.

Other symptoms include:

  • Intense coughing bouts that are more common at night.
  • Coughing that brings up thick mucus or that is followed by vomiting.
  • Gasping for breath in between coughs – this may cause a ‘whoop’ sound, although not everyone has this.
  • A red face.
  • Slight bleeding under the skin or in the eyes.
  • Turning blue briefly if they have trouble breathing.  
  • Brief periods where they stop breathing.

(NHS Choices, 2016a)

Contact your GP or NHS 111 straightaway if you think your baby has whopping cough (NHS Choices, 2016a).

A person with whooping cough is infectious from about six days after they were infected until three weeks after the coughing bouts start. At first, they will just have cold-like symptoms (NHS Choices, 2016a)

Whooping cough treatment includes:

  • Antibiotic treatment.
  • Keeping your child off nursery or baby groups from when the symptoms start until 48 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment or three weeks after coughing started (whichever is sooner).
  • Lots of fluids and age-appropriate painkillers.
  • Covering their mouth and nose with a tissue when they cough and sneeze.
  • Disposing of used tissues immediately.
  • Washing your baby’s hands regularly. 

(NHS Choices, 2016a; NICE, 2017)

If you’re pregnant, you can help protect your baby by getting vaccinated (NHS Choices, 2016b). Ideally, you’d do this from 16 weeks up to 32 weeks pregnant but you can have it up until you go into labour. Babies are also vaccinated at eight, 12 and 16 weeks old.

This page was last reviewed in March 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

NHS Choices. (2016a) Whooping cough. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/whooping-cough/ [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NHS Choices. (2016b) Whooping cough vaccination in pregnancy. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/whooping-cough-vaccination-pregnant/  [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NHS Choices. (2017a) How you can treat a cough yourself. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/ [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NHS Choices. (2017b) Common cold. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/ [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NHS Choices. (2018b) Ear infections. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ear-infections/ [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NHS. (2015) Colds, coughs and ear infections in children. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/coughs-colds-ear-infections/ [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NICE. (2016) Common cold. Available from:  https://cks.nice.org.uk/common-cold#!scenario [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

NICE. (2017) Whooping cough. Available from:  https://cks.nice.org.uk/whooping-cough [Accessed: 1st March 2018]

Related articles

Mother and baby

Local activities and meetups

Support our campaign for postnatal mental health
Support our campaign for postnatal mental health

Courses & workshops

Baby First Aid

Find out more

Early Days

Find out more

Introducing solid foods

Find out more