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The Babytalk Guide to Winter Health

Cuddly sweaters and crackling fires, snowmen and sleigh rides... not to mention coughs, colds, and fevers. Winter is the prime season for sickness because people spend more time indoors with the windows closed, allowing viruses and bacteria to circulate more easily. In fact, it's almost inevitable that your baby will get sick in the next few months  -- most children have between six and nine viral infections in their first year alone. Here's how you can keep some of the nasty bugs at bay, lessen their severity once germs take hold, and keep your little patient comfortable.

Colds and flu

Since colds and influenza are both viral respiratory infections, you may often not be able to tell the difference.

* Signs of the common cold include: a sore throat (your baby may sound hoarse), a decrease in appetite, a stuffy or runny nose, fussiness and fatigue, mild fever, and a cough. Children usually improve in 7 to 14 days.

* The flu is characterized by a high fever, a dry cough, vomiting, and crankiness. Most symptoms subside after five days, but a lingering cough and general weakness may persist for another week or two.

For infants 3 months and younger, call the doctor right away if your child has a fever over 100.4¿F. For an older baby, call if the cold or flu lasts longer than a week or her symptoms worsen (her temperature goes up, for instance).

Don't expect your child to be prescribed antibiotics. Colds and flu are not bacterial infections, so antibiotics will have no effect. Sometimes, however, a common cold can lead to a secondary bacterial infection in your child's ear, sinuses (sinusitis), or lungs (bronchitis, pneumonia), which does require a course of antibiotics.

Keep the air flowing. An over-the-counter saline nasal spray can help flush out your infant's stuffy nose. Or try a nasal aspirator to suction out the mucus.

Mist the nursery. Use a cool-mist vaporizer during naps and at night to open up your baby's breathing passages and loosen the mucus, making it easier for her to cough it out.

Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author of 42 childcare books, including The Baby Book. Additional research by James Sears, M.D.