Safely Treating the 5 Most Common Infant Ailments

Cyril Sahyoun, M.D.

The first time your baby gets an ear infection or catches a cold, you may feel scared or anxious. But it’s very common for your child to experience one or several of these ailments within their first year. Fortunately, not all infant illnesses mean a trip to the doctor. There are many things you can do at home to relieve your child’s symptoms of some of the most common ailments in babies 6 months and younger.

Coughs and the Common Cold

A runny nose and congestion are common signs of a cold in babies. One reason infants are more susceptible to the common cold is because they haven’t yet developed immunity to many common infections. In fact, it is not uncommon for a healthy child to have up to seven colds within their first year. Cold symptoms can last close to one week.

Oral cough and cold medicines (including cough suppressants, cough expectorants and multi-symptom cold medicines) are not safe for infants and young children under the age of 4. However, if your child has a fever, you can give them acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to help relieve symptoms. The label includes dosing for children age 2 and older; talk to your doctor for dosing for younger children.

You can also give your child ibuprofen (such as Motrin or Advil). Dosing for children 6 months and older is on the label; talk to a doctor for dosing for younger children.

If your child is too young to be given over-the-counter (OTC) medications, another option is to use OTC nose drops, such as saline drops, to loosen and thin nasal mucus. You can also try running a humidifier to moisten the air or using a rubber-bulb syringe to keep your baby’s nasal passages clear.

Ear Ache

If your child seems more irritable than usual, develops a fever or you notice a yellow or whitish fluid draining from his or her ear, this could be a sign of an ear infection — one of the most common reasons parents bring their child to the doctor. A recent sore throat, cold or other respiratory symptom can also bring on an ear infection.

If you think your child has an ear infection, it’s important to consult a doctor because an ear infection in a child younger than 6 months of age often means a course of antibiotics. However, there are a few things you can do to help treat your child’s symptoms in the meantime:

  • The correct dose of acetaminophen in babies 6 months and older can help relieve pain. Talk to your doctor to get proper dosing instructions for those under age 2.
  • Hold a warm compress to your child’s ear.
  • Keep your baby’s head elevated while she is lying down, but do not use a pillow because it can be a suffocation hazard. Try having your baby nap in their car seat or stroller with their head slightly elevated. Only do this while your baby is sick (as doing this long-term may cause head or neck strain).
  • If your child is younger than 3 months and has a rectal temperature over 100.4° Fahrenheit (equivalent to 38° Celsius), consult your doctor immediately, as laboratory testing will likely be necessary.

Note that eardrops are usually not recommended in young infants unless specifically prescribed by a doctor. This is because they can cause damage if the infection has caused a hole in the eardrum.

Diaper Rash

A diaper rash causes your baby’s bottom to appear bright red and irritated. This inflammation of the skin can be caused by infrequent diaper changes, diarrhea, uncomfortable diapers or material used to cover diapers, or even a recent course of antibiotics that allows fungus to grow uncontrollably.

Fortunately, diaper rash is usually easily treated and can improve within just a few days. Here are a few remedies:

  • Use an ointment, such as petroleum ointment, petroleum jelly, non-petroleum jelly, lanolin products and zinc oxide to form a protective shield on your child’s skin after every diaper change. This can help prevent further irritation caused by stool and urine. Some popular over-the-counter remedies include: A+D, Balmex, Desitin and Triple paste.
  • Change your child’s diaper frequently to keep it clean and dry.
  • Put your child’s diaper on loosely or try a different brand of disposable diapers to see if it makes a difference. For example, an extra-absorbent option or one made for sensitive skin might help relieve symptoms. Letting your child go without a diaper for short periods of time may also help.
  • Do not use an OTC topical pain reliever containing hydrocortisone on a child with diaper rash unless instructed by your doctor. If used incorrectly, it can make your child’s symptoms worse or cause other side effects. 

Constipation

It is often normal for babies to strain when passing stools and stool consistency and frequency can change. Hard stools, however, are a problem. If your newborn seems to be constipated, it’s best to consult your doctor for advice. However, if your child is older, yet still under 6 months old, there are a few simple steps you can take to help reduce symptoms:

  • Apply a small amount of water-based lubricant to the rectum to help ease the passage of hard stools. However, do not use mineral oil, laxatives and enemas to treat infant constipation.
  • You can also occasionally use an infant glycerin suppository. It is available without a prescription but instructions should be obtained from your doctor.

Diarrhea

If your child is less than 6 months old and has diarrhea, you should consult your doctor (and always talk to your doctor before giving your child under the age of 5 any OTC antidiarrheal medicines containing loperamide). But generally, the best way to treat a child with diarrhea at home is to make sure he or she stays properly hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. This can be difficult if your child is having trouble keeping breast milk or formula down. In this case, you can try giving your child a pediatric electrolyte solution, such as Pedialyte, which is available over the counter at drugstores and can help manage fluid loss. If you are using formula, another option is to try giving your child just a little bit of fluid at a time — a few sips every 5 to 10 minutes — to make it easier for her to keep down.

To relieve diaper area irritation caused by loose stools, apply a thick layer of diaper cream at changing time.

When to Contact Your Doctor

While many of the symptoms of these common ailments can be treated at home, there are, of course, times when it is necessary to contact your doctor:

  • If over-the-counter medicines or other home remedies do not improve symptoms within 24 hours.
  • If your child is 3 months old or younger and has diarrhea or is vomiting.
  • If your child is 3 months old or younger and has a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or if your child is 3 to 6 months old and has a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • If your child has difficulty breathing that does not resolve after clearing the nasal passages. You can tell that your child is having trouble breathing by noticing the belly going up and down with each breath and the muscles between the ribs on the baby’s chest going in and out much more visibly than usual.

Remember, whenever using OTC medicines to treat a child’s symptoms, always make sure to read the label carefully and use the measuring device that came with the medicine to avoid an accidental overdose. Also remember that many OTC medications are not suited for children. Consult your doctors for dosing directions that are not provided on the product label.

Meet Our Experts

Cyril Sahyoun, M.D.

Dr. Cyril Sahyoun is a pediatrician and a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Morgan Stanley’s Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian at Columbia University Medical Center. He trained at both Columbia and Boston Children’s Hospital. His professional interests include patient education, medical simulation, trainee education, and international health efforts.