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5 common causes of infant congestion — and remedies that work

Sept. 11, 2018

Babies are often stuffed up and congested, but when is a baby’s stuffy nose something to worry about? If your baby sounds congested, it’s important to narrow down the potential causes.

Seeking professional medical advice from a doctor or nurse should always be your first line of defense. But knowing what causes infant congestion and learning some ways to ease your baby's suffering can make you both feel better quickly.

Here are five common explanations for infant congestion, and what you can do to help your baby breathe easier.

1. Babies have very small nasal passages and may only sound congested.

"Congestion in babies is caused either by swelling of the nasal passages, so air can't get through, or by the nasal passages being filled up with mucus," says Dr. Roy Benaroch, a pediatrician and author of "Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool." "Infant noses are so small to begin with, so even a little swelling or mucus can cause congestion."

Kristina Duda, a registered nurse and the cold and flu expert at About.com, agrees.

"Sometimes babies just sound congested, when there really isn't anything to worry about," she says.

What you can do: For typical congestion caused solely by infant anatomy, Duda says, "Keeping babies noses clear with a bulb syringe can be a good idea. If your baby is eating OK, and doesn't seem to be too bothered by their congestion, then there shouldn't be too much to worry about."

2. Babies can’t blow their noses and need a little help.

"Older children and adults can easily clear mucus out of their noses by blowing them,” says Benaroch. “Little babies can't do that, so they tend to stay congested."

What you can do: To clear out baby noses safely and easily, both Benaroch and Duda suggest the NoseFrida baby nostril aspirator because it works well and is safe to use for babies. Generally, it does the same thing as a bulb syringe by clearing out the mucus in their noses, but it's easier to clean than typical syringes. Parents suck the mucus out of their babies' noses using the nostril aspirator. But don't get grossed out — there is a filter that blocks the mucus from reaching your mouth.

3. Common irritants like dust, perfumes and smoke can cause baby congestion.

Air quality is important and can really wreak havoc on a baby’s stuffy nose.

"Irritants like warm dry air, tobacco or cooking smoke or other environmental irritants in the air can cause baby congestion," says Benaroch.

What you can do: Duda suggests that parents eliminate any environmental factors and "invest in a cool mist humidifier for baby's room."

4. Your baby could have the common cold virus.

"Most of the time, baby congestion isn't really painful for them, but it can affect their sleeping, especially if they get the common cold virus," says Duda.

What you can do: If your baby is really congested, Duda suggests elevating your baby's head while he sleeps.

"Putting them in their baby car seat or even swing so they are in an upright, elevated position can help drain some of that mucus," she says.

Still have a baby with a stuffed up nose on your hands?

"Try saline drops for babies' noses that help clear out some of that mucus, as well," says Duda.

5. Your baby could have caught Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and needs medical treatment.

Sometimes a stuffy nose can mean something more than infant congestion. Keep an eye out for these clear warning signs, says Duda: "If babies are more irritable than normal, they just are not feeding very well, they are lethargic, they don't want to smile and play as usual or they are sleeping more than normal — these kinds of signs could signal a more serious illness, such as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus in babies."

RSV is one of the most common causes of respiratory illnesses in babies and is signaled by a lot of mucus that doesn't go away.

"RSV seems to be more common in premature infants, so parents should be aware of that,” Duda says. “It occurs when the common cold virus starts to attack their lungs and needs medical intervention to treat.”

What you can do: If you think your baby might have RSV, call your pediatrician immediately.

Signs that your baby’s congestion needs immediate medical care

Sometimes infant congestion can impair your baby's breathing, which Duda says is a clear signal to take your little one to the doctor — no matter the cause.

"If babies are coughing a lot and there is no relief, then they should really be seen by a doctor,” she says. “Something more serious to watch out for is nasal flaring. If babies' nostrils are flaring in and out every time they breathe and they have retraction around the ribs, this means that they are working too hard to breathe and need immediate medical attention. If they are grunting with every breath, this is also a serious concern, and parents should seek out immediate medical attention for their babies."

If you're ever concerned about your baby's breathing, an appointment with your pediatrician is called for.

For more on your baby's health, check out The Sick Baby Survival Guide.

This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

Read next: When should you worry about your child's fever?

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