Common baby winter illnesses

Coughs, colds and winter vomiting are just some of the symptoms your baby may face in the colder months.

baby wearing winter hat

Winter can feel like an endurance test when you’ve got a baby who wades her way through one cold after another. And although most winter bugs are harmless, some of them can be serious. So whether you just need to ease the symptoms of a cough or you’re concerned that your baby may need urgent medical care, read on for all you need to know.


Common colds

Colds are a common childhood illness. Babies catch, on average, between 7 and 10 colds a year, mostly during the winter months.

Caused by a virus, expect runny or blocked noses, coughs, sore throats and general crankiness. Babies may find feeding hard with a blocked nose, or go off solid food and want milk only.

Health visitor Annette Maloney says, “Your baby can catch up to 10 different cold viruses a year. Coming across germs helps strengthen your baby’s immunity. The main way colds are spread is by droplets from coughs and sneezes, so it’s just common sense not to cough or sneeze directly over your baby.

“One of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of bugs is hand-washing. When anyone wants to cuddle your baby, get them to wash their hands first. But bear in mind that babies thrive in a clean environment, not an artificially sterile one.”

What to do

Give rest and fluids, and try infant paracetamol for babies over 3 months. “See your GP if he’s struggling to breathe or coughs up green or yellow mucus,” advises GP Dr Eileen Nolan.

Hand, foot and mouth

This virus causes itchy, sore blisters on your child’s palms, the soles of his feet and inside his mouth. These tend to follow a couple of days of high temperature, runny nose and a sore throat.

What to do

This condition is infectious until the blisters dry up, so don’t burst them or it will spread. Teething gel can soothe ulcers in the mouth, and the sores will clear up in a week or so. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly every time you touch a blister or change a dirty nappy.

Winter vomiting (rotovirus)

This virus can cause diarrhoea, vomiting and a temperature. It’s very infectious and can last between 3 and 10 days.

What to do

Give infant paracetamol (for babies over 3 months) for a high temperature, and rehydration sachets. “Dehydration is a danger with rotovirus, so see your GP if your child’s nappies are dry or he starts to need the loo less often,” advises Dr Nolan.


An inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and the spine, meningitis can be caused by a viral, bacterial or fungal infection – and winter sees an increase in cases.

Symptoms include:

  • High temperature
  • Drowsiness
  • Floppiness
  • Vomiting
  • A sensitivity to light
  • A pinprick-like purple or red rash which doesn’t fade when you press a glass against it
  • A sore or stiff neck
  • High-pitched, persistent crying

What to do

“Meningitis can come on quickly, so if you spot any of the signs, contact your GP,” warns Dr Nolan.

“If they can’t see you immediately, go to A&E – don’t wait for other signs to develop. If necessary, call an ambulance. Treatment will depend on the type of infection your baby has – the bacterial type can be treated with antibiotics, for example.”


This bacterial or viral infection causes your child’s airways to become inflamed. Your infant may have a dry, barking cough (which may sound a bit like a seal), and possibly a temperature and difficulty breathing.

What to do

Inhaling steam can ease a cough, so sit with your baby in a steamy room. Sitting him upright can help breathing. The cough should ease off in a couple of days, but if it doesn’t, call your GP. Give infant paracetamol for a temperature.

Ear infections

Your baby may be grumpy, off his food and have a temperature, with runny wax in his ear. “Repeated infections can lead to glue ear, where fluid builds up, temporarily making your child slightly deaf,” says Dr Nolan.

What to do

Keep his ears dry – no shampooing or swimming – and give infant paracetamol (for babies over 3 months) for a fever.

Your baby may also need to take antibiotics.

Sore throat

Caused by a virus or bacterial infection, where the back of the throat becomes inflamed. A baby or toddler won’t be able to tell you where it hurts, so watch for the telltale signs of wincing when swallowing or crying when feeding.

What to do

Give infant paracetamol (for babies over 3 months old) and offer warm, soothing drinks. If he doesn’t improve after 2 or 3 days, see your GP.


This occurs when airways in the lungs fill with mucus and stop air getting through. Can be caused by a cold or a virus called RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). In older children it usually just causes a cough and sore throat, but can make breathing difficult for babies.

What to do

Raise the head of your baby’s cot, try a humidifier and offer lots of fluids. If you’re worried, contact your GP. “Some babies need to go to hospital for a day or two, and have oxygen or bronchodilators (like in an asthma inhaler) to help them breathe,” advises Dr Nolan.


A fever is a temperature over 37.5°C (99.5°F), and is common in the early stages of any virus such as a cough, cold or tummy bug. Your baby doesn’t have a well-developed ability to regulate her body temperature and often hasn’t learnt to shiver.

She has a higher body-surface-area-to-weight ratio than an adult, so even a little exposed skin loses a lot of heat. In order to protect you baby from fever try to keep her warm and dry.

Mums’ stories

“Our doctor recommended baby paracetamol and warm milk”

“When Lacey has a sore throat she makes a gulping sound when she swallows, like it’s a real effort for her. Our doctor said it was caused by a virus, and recommended that we give her baby paracetamol and warmed up her milk to soothe her throat.”

Romey, 22, mum to Billy, 2, and Lacey, 9 months

“Antibiotics worked very quickly on my son’s ear infections”

“Gerry has been getting ear infections since he was 5 months old, more often in winter. It causes him a lot of pain, and a foul-smelling liquid comes out of his ears. I take him straight to the doctor now, and he has antibiotics which work very quickly.”


Nadine, 28, mum to Gerry, 18 months

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