Baby congestion

Chest and nasal congestion are common symptoms associated with the common cold and other respiratory infections. However, because your baby can’t simply blow her own nose, you’ll have to take steps to help relieve your baby’s congested nose and chest. Find out how you can help treat your baby’s congestion at home, and when you may need to see her healthcare provider.

Why Your Baby’s Nose and Chest Are Congested

Nasal congestion happens when the nose and its surrounding tissues, including the blood vessels, become swollen with excess mucus. This, in turn, results in what’s commonly called a stuffy nose, which is often described as a "plugged” feeling. Sometimes, nasal congestion also includes discharge, more commonly called a runny nose. Congestion that affects the nose and throat is typically caused by an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold. Similarly, chest congestion happens when the airways of the lungs swell and then fill with mucus, which can make breathing difficult. It often leads to a wet-sounding or productive cough. Congestion that affects the chest is caused by a lower respiratory tract infection. It’s very common for babies to develop upper respiratory infections, such as colds, or lower respiratory tract infections, sometimes even in their first few months. These infections can easily spread through respiratory droplets in the air or by contact with contaminated surfaces or family members who are ill. Since congestion is only a symptom of an underlying illness, your child must first get over the infection causing the illness for the congestion to completely clear. In most cases, a cold can be treated at home with simple remedies that can help alleviate symptoms like congestion and help make your baby feel more comfortable. If it’s more than a cold, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, your child’s healthcare provider may prescribe medication to treat the underlying infection, which in turn can help relieve the congestion.

How to Tell If Your Baby Is Congested

Your baby can't tell you that she's congested, of course, but you may notice her making more noise when she breathes, or having more trouble taking liquids. Sometimes you can see that she has a stuffy nose, and may even have mucus dripping from her nose as well, which is another sign of congestion. When your baby is experiencing congestion, it's likely that she has developed an upper or lower respiratory tract infection. Here are additional symptoms of respiratory infections to look out for:

  • Nasal discharge that may be clear at first but then thickens and turns yellow or green

  • Difficulty nursing or taking a bottle

  • Wet or productive cough

  • Sneezing

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Slightly elevated temperature (a high fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is rare, but if that’s the case, contact your baby’s healthcare provider).

Newborns and babies younger than 3 or 4 months have a tough time with congestion as it can cause discomfort in many ways. A baby isn't able to blow his nose, so the mucus in the nasal passage has no way of coming out without help from an adult. Not only that: a young infant isn't able to breathe well through his mouth, so any congestion can interrupt sleep, causing him to wake up. It can also make feeding more difficult, as the baby must stop sucking in order to take a breath now and then.

The Difference Between a Dry and Wet Cough

If your baby’s cough sounds wet, it’s most likely due to chest congestion. The cough will often last longer than a runny nose, if your baby has that symptom as well. It’s best to consult your baby’s healthcare provider if she has a cough, especially if she’s under 2 months old. If the cough sounds dry or irritated, your baby most likely won’t have chest congestion. Dry coughs are often characteristic of conditions like croup or whooping cough, both of which can have a barking sound. If your baby does indeed have a dry cough that has a barking sound, or if your baby makes a wheezing sound when breathing, contact her healthcare provider as she may need prescription medication to treat the underlying cause. Be aware that experts do not recommend over-the-counter cough medicine for children younger than 6 years old as it may cause serious side effects such as slowed breathing.

Immediate Relief for Your Baby’s Nasal Congestion

If it appears that your infant has nasal congestion and it is bothering her, you can follow this two-step process to help clear her nose. Do this every few hours, and ideally 15 to 20 minutes before a feeding or bedtime:

  1. Use saline (salt water) drops or spray. Two drops or sprays per nostril are enough. Avoid nose drops or sprays that have any additional medication.

  2. Use a bulb syringe for clearing out any mucus. Clear your baby’s nose immediately after using the saline drops or spray. To use a bulb syringe, squeeze the bulb part first before gently inserting the syringe into your baby’s nostril. Then slowly release the bulb in order to suction out the mucus.

Before using the nose dropper, spray, or bulb syringe, make sure that the item has been thoroughly washed with soap and water, then rinsed with clean water, and allowed to dry completely.

How to Help Relieve Your Baby’s Chest and Nasal Congestion

To help relieve both your baby’s nasal and chest congestion, try the following:

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier in your baby’s room. Set the machine close to your baby, making sure it is out of his reach. The additional moisture provided by the cool mist can help relieve the congestion by thinning the mucosal secretions and thereby clearing your baby’s stuffy and/or runny nose at night. Be sure to thoroughly clean and dry the humidifier every day as recommended by the manufacturer so that you can prevent any bacterial or mold growth.

When to See Your Baby’s Healthcare Provider

Contact your baby’s provider right away if you see any of the following symptoms. which may indicate a more serious illness:

  • A cough that’s painful, persistent, and/or accompanied by a whooping sound, vomiting, or turning blue, which means your child is having difficulty breathing

  • Loss of appetite (signaled by your baby refusing several feedings)

  • Fever —if your baby has a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit

  • Irritability

  • Being sleepier than usual, or if your baby is hard to wake up.

The Bottom Line

Congestion is something your baby will experience from time to time, as it’s a common symptom of a cold. Easy home remedies and treatments, like clearing his nose with saline spray and using a cool-mist humidifier in his bedroom, can help ease your baby’s congested nose or chest and help him feel more comfortable until the cold passes. Clearing her nasal passages with a saline spray or drops followed by suctioning out the mucus with a bulb syringe before a feeding and before bedtime is important, as congestion can make it difficult for your baby to feed or sleep. If, in addition to congestion, your baby has other symptoms like a high fever, a persistent cough, sleepiness, or refusing to feed, contact his healthcare provider for advice and treatment.