Few sights are sadder than a baby runny nose, but as any parent can attest, it’s far from uncommon during baby’s first year — particularly during the latter half.
“Thanks to a transfer of maternal immunoglobulins to the placenta late in pregnancy, babies are born with much of their mother’s immunity,” says Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “However, this immunity lasts until roughly 6 months of age. When those immunoglobulins wear off, babies’ own immune systems have to do the work, which is why we see so many more illnesses — including colds, which cause runny noses — around this time. While it may be distressing to parents, it’s completely normal.”
Regardless of how common runny noses are for infants, moms and dads just want to help their little one feel better fast. Fortunately, there are a number of things parents can do to help alleviate the discomfort (and annoyance) that often accompanies a baby runny nose.
Why does my baby have a runny nose?
Most runny noses are caused by viral upper respiratory infections — or colds, as most people refer to them, says Navsaria.
“Influenza and other specific respiratory viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), may also cause a runny nose,” he notes. In some cases, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that COVID can cause nasal congestion or a runny nose in babies.
Less common causes of baby runny nose are:
- Sinus infections.
- Irritation from a foreign body in the nose.
- Irritation from something in the air. “Oil or scent diffusers can cause irritation in some people, including babies,” notes Navsaria.
Keep in mind that not all runny noses are the result of an infection or irritation.
“Cold weather can cause a temporary runny nose in anyone,” says Dr. Amna Husain, a board-certified pediatrician and AAP Media Spokesperson. “During winter, when the air is dryer, more mucus is created to keep the nasal passages moist.”
How long does runny nose last in babies?
An infant runny nose caused by the common cold should last a little over a week.
“Cold viruses tend to last about 10 days total,” says Navsaria. “Runny noses will often last less than that 10-day period, but probably by only a day or two.”
How do I treat baby’s runny nose?
Wondering how to comfort and care for a baby with a runny nose? There are a number of ways to treat this common ailment at home, using items you probably already have in your medicine cabinet, cupboard or fridge.
1. Bulb suction
Runny noses can be treated by using gentle bulb suction or another suction device like the NoseFrida to clear the mucus from the baby’s nostrils. (A good time to try this is right before feeding to help baby breathe better so they can nurse or drink their bottle.) However, if you’re using a bulb syringe, it’s important to proceed with extreme caution since it’s difficult to see how far up baby’s nose you’re going.
“When you stick a bulb syringe bluntly into baby’s nostrils, you can cause some rebound congestion as those delicate membranes are poked and prodded,” says Husain. “I prefer devices like the NoseFrida or the Clearinse Nasal Aspirator, which stay outside baby’s nostrils while still allowing mucus to be removed.”
2. Saline drops
Whether you’re using a suction device to remove mucus or simply are wiping baby’s runny nose with a rag, try loosening things up first with saline.
“My preferred way to treat runny noses in babies is with saline drops or saline spray — the drops are easier with an infant,” says Husain.
These help break up any mucus or congestion, which will make it easier to remove.
3. Plenty of fluids
Regardless of the reason for your little one’s runny nose, fluids are always a good idea. According to the Mayo Clinic, liquids are key in avoiding dehydration, which, in turn, can cause congestion. There’s no need to give baby extra fluids when they have a runny nose, but make sure they’re taking in their usual amount of breast milk or formula.
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4. A cool mist humidifier
“Whenever there’s a runny nose or congestion in environments where the air is dryer due to indoor heating, I recommend using a humidifier to help moisten the air,” says Navsaria. “It can help keep the mucus from thickening too much in some cases.”
The AAP says to use a cool mist humidifier for children (because hot water can result in burns), as well as cleaning and drying the humidifier each day to prevent mold and bacteria growth.
5. Petroleum jelly
While it may be a knee-jerk reaction to do something when your infant has a runny nose, in many cases, a baby runny nose isn’t all that terrible.
“We often think a runny nose or nasal congestion is more distressing to young children than it is,” says Navsaria.
He says sometimes all you need to do is gently wipe away any nasal mucus that is running out of your baby’s nose, and if your baby’s skin gets red or irritated, you can rub a little soothing petroleum jelly on the area.
6. Avoid decongestants and menthol rubs
Before giving your baby any kind of medication, it’s best to speak to their pediatrician, but overall, medications such as decongestants and antihistamines are discouraged before age 2. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these medications can have serious side effects, such as convulsions, rapid heart rate and even death.
Additionally, avoid using any kind of menthol rub on baby.
“I don’t recommend mentholated rubs (like VapoRub),” Navsaria says. “They don’t actually reduce congestion and, if applied too heavily, can have systemic absorption and cause problems.”
According to the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), using Vicks VapoRub can cause the body to produce more mucus in order to protect the airway. Since children’s airways are significantly more narrow than adults, such an increase can have severe effects on their breathing.