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Baby colds, coughs and ear infections: childhood illness

Tips on how to care for a sick baby or toddler: information on common childhood illnesses including the symptoms, how long they last and what to do when your baby is sick.

In this article, we look at baby illness symptoms and causes of children's coughs, colds, ear infections and sore throats, and what you can to do to help ease your child's discomfort. We also discuss what to do in the more serious case of whooping cough.

Baby colds

It’s normal for children to have around eight colds a year because there are hundreds of different cold viruses to which they haven’t been exposed before so they don’t have immunity. Sometimes it can feel like your baby is sick all the time. But, rest assured, children do gradually build a resistance and most colds disappear in five to seven days. Here are some ways you can help ease your baby's illness symptoms the symptoms for your child:

  • Increase the amount of fluid your child normally drinks.
  • Saline nose drops can help loosen dried nasal secretions and relieve a stuffy nose. Ask your pharmacist, GP or health visitor about them.
  • If your child has a fever, pain or discomfort, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help. There are special products for children but read on the packet about the dosage for different ages.
  • Encourage your whole family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.

Read more about preventing illnesses in our article here.

Baby coughs

Children often cough when they have a cold because of mucus trickling down the back of their throat. It can be upsetting to hear your child coughing, but remember it does help to clear away the phlegm and mucus. Try not to worry, especially if they’re feeding, drinking and breathing normally.

If their symptoms persist and they have a high temperature; they’re unable to swallow fluids or saliva; or they’re breathless, you should go and see your GP. These could be signs that your child has a chest infection. If the infection is caused by bacteria rather than a virus your GP will prescribe antibiotics to clear it up. If your child is over the age of one, you could also try giving them a warm drink of lemon and honey.

Baby sore throats

Sore throats are often caused by viral illnesses such as colds or flu. Your child’s throat may be dry and sore for a day or two before a cold starts. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be given to reduce the pain.

Most sore throats clear up on their own after a few days. If your child has a sore throat for more than four days, has a high temperature and is generally unwell, or is unable to swallow fluids or saliva, see your GP.

Baby ear infections

These are common in children and can follow a cough or cold. Babies may just cry, seem uncomfortable or have a temperature, while toddlers might rub their ears. Most infections are caused by viruses, which can’t be treated with antibiotics and generally get better by themselves. Your child may have difficulty hearing for two to six weeks though. Talk to your GP if the problem lasts longer, or your baby or toddler has repeated infections.

If your child has earache but is otherwise well, you could give them paracetamol or ibuprofen for 12 to 24 hours. It's best to avoid put any oil, eardrops or cotton buds into your child’s ear unless your GP advises you to do so.

Whooping cough symptoms in children

The government recommends a whooping cough vaccination for women between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy as this can help protect them and their baby from serious disease.

Symptoms are similar to a cold and cough, but coughing bouts may develop after about two weeks and sometimes there’s a whooping noise. It’s contagious for about six weeks after the first signs of illness. Babies under six months are more seriously affected and can need hospital treatment, so see your GP immediately. Also be aware that babies younger than six months may not make the 'whoop' sound after coughing, but they may start gagging or gasping, and may temporarily stop breathing.

If your toddler has a cough that gets worse with longer, more frequent fits of coughing, also see your GP.

The content on this page is based on copy from NHS Choices

More information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 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.

Read more about coughs, sore throats and colds on the NHS website.

Find out about the More Than a Cold campaign which provides a winter illness checklist for parents and other preventative tips.