Colds & Ear Infections
There's usually no reason to worry when your little one sniffles or sneezes, even if you notice a thick, greenish discharge dripping from her nose. "That's actually very common in children with colds and isn't a sign of a bacterial infection, as it is in adults," says Carden Johnston, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.
Still, a seemingly harmless cold can quickly turn into a more serious respiratory illness in infants 3 months and younger, so be sure to check your baby for fever and call the pediatrician if her temperature tops 100.2°F. Children between 3 and 6 months with a fever of at least 101°F should also be examined. A high temperature in older babies isn't necessarily cause for alarm: "Some kids run fevers at the drop of a hat," says Joan Shook, M.D., chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "In most cases, a fever just has to run its course."
If your baby is older than 6 months and has a garden-variety cold, you can treat her at home by making sure that she gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids, including water and fruit juice. (Babies should also continue to nurse or drink formula.) There's no need to treat the fever unless your baby is uncomfortable. If she's fussy you can give her acetaminophen or ibuprofen (but never aspirin -- it puts kids at risk for the serious disease Reye's syndrome). A lukewarm sponge bath may also help (if given in conjunction with a fever-reducing medicine) to make her more comfortable. "A cool-mist vaporizer will help break up congestion and may keep secretions in her chest and sinuses loose," according to Cheston Berlin, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University's Hershey Medical Center. "You can then use a bulb syringe to suction mucus from a little baby's nose or have your child blow gently into a tissue." Don't give children under 3 an over-the-counter cough preparation or decongestant without first consulting your pediatrician.
Finally, stay alert for any changes in your child's condition and call the doctor if she isn't feeling better in a week, has trouble breathing, or runs a fever over 102°F.
Your 15-month-old is just getting over a cold when he spikes a fever and you notice that his ear is red or that he is tugging at it. The cause? Most likely an ear infection, which, after a cold, is the most common reason for a visit to the pediatrician in children under 3.
The culprits are your child's tiny eustachian tubes, which connect his middle ears with the back of his throat and normally drain fluid. When these passages become clogged, fluid builds up and presses against the eardrum -- and your child starts yelling in pain. The tubes can also be blocked when babies drink from their bottle while lying down and a small amount of milk flows back into their ears. "If they have an ear infection, they'll usually cry more during feedings because sucking causes painful pressure changes in their ears," says Dr. Johnston. "They may also fuss more when they lie down and have trouble sleeping." Older children may tug at the affected ear, but that's a less-than-reliable symptom in children under 2 because their nerves aren't developed enough for them to pinpoint the origin of the pain, says Dr. Johnston.
If you suspect an ear infection, make an appointment with your pediatrician. In the meantime, you can ease a child's discomfort with acetaminophen or ibuprofen (for an infant under 6 months, ask the doctor first). You can also apply a warm towel to the achy ear or prop up his head on a few pillows to relieve the pressure in his eardrums. (To reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, never let a baby fall asleep near soft bedding.) Even if your child has had so many ear infections that you're a pro at recognizing the symptoms, don't try to treat one yourself with leftover antibiotics, says Dr. Johnston. Many ear infections are viral and antibiotics are effective only against bacteria; using them on a viral infection may backfire and encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Call the pediatrician if a child of any age has an earache accompanied by a fever, a cold, or a headache; if you notice any pus coming out of his ears; or if the glands in his neck start to swell.