Jan 30, 2023, 4:59:09 PM CST Nov 1, 2023, 12:40:29 PM CDT

Treating nasal congestion in babies and toddlers

A pediatrician shares advice to help young children with runny and stuffy noses

Little boy holding tissue to blow his nose Little boy holding tissue to blow his nose

Babies and toddlers can get congested – a lot. As a parent, you might feel like you are constantly wiping a runny nose or trying to help clear a stuffy one.

Todd Burton, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Health℠, offers advice on how to take care of your little one when they have nasal congestion.

What causes nasal congestion in babies and toddlers?

Nasal congestion can be a symptom of a lot of different conditions, including the common cold.

"The obvious thing most people think of is the common cold or upper respiratory infection," says Dr. Burton. "That happens more often than people realize. On average, kids get 6 to 8 colds per year."

If it's not a cold, your child could also have another respiratory illness, such as:

Newborns can also experience congestion without being sick. Many babies just sound congested until they get a little older and a little bigger. Babies with reflux or who spit up often can also experience a lot of nasal congestion.

"Sometimes it is hard to figure out the cause of nasal congestion, as a physician and as a parent," says Dr. Burton.

How can I help my baby or toddler with a runny or stuffy nose?

Unfortunately for little ones, there is no quick fix or medicine to treat nasal congestion in kids. It's important to know that cold medicine is not recommended for kids under the age of 6.

But there are ways to help your child feel better when they have a stuffy or runny nose. First, consider how sick your child appears. If they have a fever, you can give them fever-reducing medication (liquid acetaminophen or liquid ibuprofen for 6 months and older) to help control it. If the fever is high (for newborns, 100.4 degrees; for 3-month-olds to 3-year-olds, 102 degrees), call your pediatrician.

You know your child best. If they usually run around or sing silly songs, but are only sitting quietly, you can guess they don't feel well. Make sure they get plenty of rest and fluids while treating their nasal congestion.

You can also try to relieve your child's nasal congestion by:

  • Humidifying the air in the room where they sleep with a cool air humidifier
  • Keeping babies in an upright position for longer after they eat to reduce spit-up
  • Running a steamy shower or bath
  • Raising the head of the bed ONLY for children over age 1 (babies should always sleep on a flat surface)
  • Using saline drops or mist in their nose
  • Removing mucus with a bulb suctioning device or other suctioning devices
  • Turning off the ceiling fan in their room, which can dry out their nose

These tips may be especially helpful at night when nasal congestion or coughing may interrupt your child's sleep.

Talk with your pediatrician before trying other home remedies. Some popular remedies have not been studied in children and may carry more risk than benefit.

Tips for nasal suctioning babies and toddlers

It's not always easy to use a nasal suctioning device on little ones, but Dr. Burton has advice that can help suctioning be more effective.

"First, put two or three saline drops in their nostrils," says Dr. Burton. "Let that sit for a few minutes, then use the bulb suctioning."

He says you also need to create a good seal to get effective suction. That might mean you need a bigger tip to get a good seal immediately.

In today's market, there are a lot of different suctioning devices, including electric booger suckers. Most of these devices should be safe, though there is no formal statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on their safety.

The most important thing to avoid is using the devices too much. Overuse can cause your child's nose to swell, making congestion worse. Children may also fight the suction device and start to cry, which can lead to more congestion. If your child is eating, sleeping and playing normally, you might not need to use bulb suctioning.

When to call the doctor for nasal congestion

Though baby boogers and toddler colds can be difficult, most children's symptoms will recover on their own with time, rest and extra cuddles. Contact your child's pediatrician if you notice any of the following symptoms with nasal congestion:

  • High fever
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Severe or persistent cough
  • Pulling at ears
  • Thick, nasal discharge for several days
  • Trouble breathing or stridor
  • Red eyes or yellow or green discharge from the eyes

Learn more

Children's Health Primary Care is here to care for all aspects of your child's health, from well-child exams and treatment of common illnesses to treatment of chronic conditions. Learn more about our primary care services.

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