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By Ibironke Taiwo. Freelance Writer, with medical review and editorial support by The DLHA Team.
Woman holding a little girl. Image by Freepik
It is late July in the bustling city of Nairobi, Kenya and a new Kikuyu mum noticed that her five-month old baby had a stuffy, runny nose. She grabbed a thick blanket to cover the baby up, acting on the belief that her baby’s stuffy and runny nose was a result of exposure to the cold winds of Nairobi’s dry season (winter).
Could she be right about this?
Keep reading to learn more about what the common cold is, the major causes, its symptoms and treatment in African babies.
The common cold is actually caused by a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, i.e., nose, and throat. The common cold is generally a self-limiting, non-life threatening condition in babies, older children and adults too.
Although specific data throughout African countries are not readily available, it is generally believed that African babies like their age groups world-wide can catch a cold anytime of the year, but this occurs more during the colder periods of the year which varies in many Sub Saharan African countries depending on their relative location to the equator. Babies may have an average of 6 to 8 colds each year before they attain the age .
Babies experience more colds than adults because their immune system has not been strongly built to fight against common cold viruses. This makes it quite easy for them to be infected by carriers (parents, siblings, etc) of these viruses. Babies have more episodes of cold with about 8-10 colds each year if they are placed in the daycare centres or left with grandparents or other caregivers while the mother goes to work.
Colds in babies last for about 10 - 14 days and during these days they may show changes in the colour and look of the discharge from their nose. There's no cause for alarm. All you need to do is monitor your baby's symptoms and make sure another serious illness is not present with the cold.
There is a widespread belief in many parts of Africa, that not keeping warm during cold weather causes a common cold. This explains why mothers cover their babies with thick clothing during the cold spells and even scold kids found wearing light clothes at this period.
Could this belief be true?
The truth is that the common cold in babies, children and even adults is not caused directly by wearing light clothes during the cold season or exposure to a cold environment. Instead, it is directly caused by a variety of germs (viruses in the air.
Although it is reasonable to prevent your baby from getting a cold by keeping them warm, this is not because their exposure to cold on its own causes the common cold but because the germs that causes the common cold, like the rhinovirus thrives better in cooler temperature and a recent test-tube study has shown that the function of immune producing cells of the nose is also lowered by cold weather.
There are about 200 types of viruses of which the Rhinovirus, is the commonest cause of the common cold.
The rhinovirus is spread via skin to skin contact, and from breathing in small drops of nasal fluids (nasal droplets) from the coughing or sneezing of an infected person. Also, a baby can be infected through contact with contaminated objects like toys, feeding, utensils, clothing, etc.
There are some things to look out for in order to know if your baby caught a cold. These are called signs and symptoms by your doctor or nurse.
Common symptoms and signs of cold in babies may include:
This is usually the first clue you get as a mother that your baby is down with a cold. The discharge from the stuffed or runny nose starts as thin and clear fluid, but later becomes thick and yellowish green, there's no cause for an alarm because this is normal.
Cold in babies usually lasts for about 10 - 14 days (approximately 2 weeks). If the symptoms or occurrence of cold persist longer, then you should take your baby to see a doctor or nurse.
You should also take your baby to see a doctor or nurse if you notice any of the following:
Common colds in babies cannot be cured with medicine. Usually, they get better on their own within 10-14 days. Home remedies can help relieve the symptoms.
Nasal saline drops: These drops are safe for babies because they do not contain harsh chemicals or medication. They help to clear thick mucus when present and relieve stuffy nose, making breathing a lot easier.
Increase fluid intake: Give your baby plenty of fluids to drink; as much as they can accept. This helps to prevent and replace what is lost due to the cold. Breast milk is the best fluid for babies under 6 months old.
Use of a humidifier: A humidifier adds moisture to the air and when used in babies with nasal congestion due to cold, it can help relieve the congestion. When your baby breathes in the moist air, it helps to loosen mucus and make it easier for them to breathe.
Cold and cough medicines: Many cold and cough medicines that are in use by adults to ease the cough and congestion due to colds are bought from chemists shops without a doctor’s prescription. They contain chemicals that dry up a runny nose, lessen cough sensations and cause drowsiness or sleepiness. They are not recommended for use in babies and children below age 4. Indeed they may be harmful to babies. So, do not use them.
Fever reducers: If your baby is below 2 months and has a fever of 1020F - 1030F (i.e., 390C - 39.40C) or higher, you should talk to your doctor or nurse and not use any fever reducer at home.
Babies above 2 months may be given liquid acetaminophen in age appropriate dosage if they have a fever of 1020F - 1030F (i.e., 390C - 39.40C) or higher, and are uncomfortable (i.e., not sleeping, not eating or taking fluids and crying). Fever reducers will not cure the cold, but they'll help to make your baby more comfortable.
Babies who are 6 months and older may be given liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen in age appropriate dosage if they have a fever of 1020F - 1030F (i.e., 390C - 39.40C) or higher, and are uncomfortable.
Antibiotics: Antibiotics are not recommended for use in babies with colds as they are not effective against the viruses that cause the common cold. Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial infections on a doctor’s recommendation.
Complementary and alternative medicines: African adults prepare and use many unproven complementary and alternative treatment methods like nasal menthol rub into the nostris and chest, to treat cold and cough symptoms. These should not be given to or applied on babies and children as they may be very harmful to them.
If you have concerns on how to relieve your baby's common cold symptoms after trying the home remedies discussed above, please talk to their doctor or other caregivers.
In preventing your baby from catching a cold the most important things that need to be done are to reduce or remove all means of your baby being exposed to the virus and this can be achieved by doing the following:
The common cold is not necessarily caused by being exposed to a cold environment as generally believed in most African countries. It is caused by many varieties of germs (viruses) of which the rhinovirus being the most common.
The common cold occurs more in babies because their immune system has not been strongly built against the germs. This makes them experience cold symptoms an average of 6 to 8 times each year before they attain the age of 2. The number of experiences becomes worse if they are kept in a daycare center or a crowded environment like the open market of most African countries.
Cold in babies lasts for an average of 10 - 14 days with changes, especially in the appearance of their nasal discharge as each day passes by.
The symptoms associated with a cold in babies may include a stuffy or runny nose. This is usually the first sign your baby shows when they are down with a cold. Other symptoms may include increased crankiness, fever, decreased interest in food intake, coughing and sneezing, etc.
It might not be possible to prevent your baby from experiencing a cold but you can take steps to reduce the occurrence by avoiding crowded areas, washing your hands, regularly disinfecting toys, surfaces, and objects, and preventing a sick person from coming close to your baby.
Most often, there is no specific treatment for the common cold beyond rest and good fluid intake, but If your baby’s cold lasts longer than 14 days (two weeks) or your baby struggles with breathing or is running a high fever, you should see a doctor or nurse to avoid complications.
1. Handling cold in children. [Internet. 2017, 21 May]. Accessed October 31, 2023.
2. Rhinoviruses. [Internet. Last updated, 2023, 8 May]. Accessed October 30, 2023.
3. Cold exposure impairs extracellular vesicle swarm-mediated nasal antiviral immunity. 2023 Feb. Accessed October 30, 2023.
4. Home remedies for cold. [Internet 2011, 16 Nov]. Accessed November 3, 2023
Published: November 7, 2023
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