When your baby coughs and sneezes

Everyone gets a few colds or bouts of flu in their lifetime, sometimes every year. Still, some parents may feel anxious when their child gets the sniffles. Are colds caused by wet hair or cold climate? Is medication the way to go?

Here are seven facts that parents should know.

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

Dr Michael Wong, deputy medical director of Raffles Medical, said that healthy babies, toddlers and pre- schoolers catch a bout of cold or flu six to eight times a year on average.

Dr Natalie Epton, a paediatrician and neonatologist at SBCC Baby & Child Clinic in Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, said some studies show that babies under two years may fall sick up to 12 times a year, or about once a month.

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

Contrary to old wives' tales, colds are not brought on by exposure to cold air, so do not over-swaddle the baby if the weather is fine. This can make her body temperature rise.

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

He added that it is the baby's immature immune system which makes her fall sick more easily.

There are other factors, like being exposed to germs at an infant-care centre or unwell siblings who spread the virus to the little one.

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

Colds and flu are respiratory tract infections. The flu hits harder than a common cold as the symptoms are usually more intense.

Your baby may be lethargic, eat poorly and have a fever, Dr Wong said. She may also develop a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and cough, Dr Epton added.

Viruses that cause colds and flu typically clear up on their own in one week to 10 days, and are not usually considered dangerous for most kids, said Dr Epton.

Do take your child to the doctor when you notice any of these signs:

- 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, and a cough that gets worse.

- Your child is lethargic and becomes increasingly irritable.

- Poor feeding, with signs of dehydration.

3. Antibiotics won't speed up recovery

As both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics can't help and won't speed up the recovery process. They work only on bacterial infections.

Dr Wong said: "Antibiotics are not effective in treating colds or flu. They may be necessary only if the cold becomes complicated by a bacterial infection or pneumonia."

He cautioned against giving your child any leftover or unused antibiotics as it may lead to antibiotic resistance and other side effects.

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

A flu jab is recommended for kids who are six months to five years old, according to the Health Promotion Board. This is available at polyclinics and most private clinics

Breastfeeding also protects against these viruses, as antibodies in breast milk help boost a baby's immune system and ward off infections, Dr Wong said.

4. Skip OTC medication - opt for plenty of fluids and rest

According to Dr Wong, a specific treatment is usually not necessary in most cases.

What your sick baby needs is plenty of rest. That means shelving activities that may over-stimulate her, as well as encouraging more naps and earlier bedtime.

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

It is not safe to play doctor and give your baby over-the-counter (OTC) medication like antihista- mines, decongestants and cough syrup.

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) said OTC cough and cold medicines are not 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, said Dr Wong. Check with your doctor on 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 narrow airways which make it harder for them to clear secretions like mucus when they have a cold.

To ease a stuffy nose, you just need a saltwater nasal spray, Dr Epton said. Use this with nasal decongestant drops, which can help constrict blood vessels in the nose and reduce mucous production.

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

Use only 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 air-conditioning

Avoid placing your child directly in front of a fan or air-conditioning as this may worsen her nasal congestion, said Dr Wong. It could also dry up and further irritate the inside lining of the nose.

He suggested humidifying the air to ease a stuffy or runny nose. But use only cool-mist humidifiers.

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

Cold and flu viruses are spread by tiny air droplets, which are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, said Dr Wong.

They can be spread indirectly 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. Throw the tissue away and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

This article first appeared in Young Parents magazine. Young Parents, published by SPH Magazines, is available in digital and print formats. Go to www.youngparents.com.sg to subscribe and for more parenting stories.

Young Parents Feb 2017 cover
Photo: Young Parents