Ask Dr Yiannis: winter baby ailments

ask dr yiannis

Our expert, Dr Yiannis Ioannou, Consultant Paediatrician at The Portland Hospital, discusses how to keep your child healthy through the winter

Babies seem to pick up all the bugs going around and it can feel as if they have a constant cold, cough, tummy ache or earache. How do you help make your little one more comfortable when suffering from winter bugs, when should you visit the doctor and how do you spot an emergency?

Is it normal for babies to be constantly ill through the winter?

“Frequent illnesses during the winter are common in children and not a
sign that your baby is unhealthy,” says Dr Yiannis Ioannou, Consultant Paediatrician at the Portland Hospital for Women and Children. “A baby’s immune system is constantly challenged from birth. Babies inherit immunity from their mother, which wears off over the first year, during which time their own immune system develops. This often coincides with the time that they start to go to nursery or day care, where they are exposed to more illnesses.

“While viral infections are around all year, they are certainly more common in winter.”

When should I be concerned if my baby keeps getting colds?

“Little ones with a normal, healthy immune system, can have as many as 12 colds a year,” says Dr Yiannis, “And it can feel as if one blends into the next, especially if they are starting nursery.

“Symptoms can include a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat, a temperature and of course coughs and sneezes. “Colds usually get better within five to seven days and because they’re caused by viruses, they are not treated by antibiotics. In some cases, antibiotics are needed if there is the possibility of bacterial infection.

“You can help your child’s symptoms by offering plenty of fluids and making sure that you keep up all feeds (be sure to drink plenty of water yourself, too while breastfeeding). If your baby’s nose is blocked, you can use saline drops to help your baby breathe more easily. You can also offer some pain relief with infant paracetamol or ibuprofen.”

I’m worried my baby may not be able to breathe properly with a cold.

“This can be a worry as babies have such small airways and a blocked nose can affect their ability to breathe and feed,” says Dr Yiannis. ‘Look for signs of dehydration such as drier nappies, and make sure you keep your baby hydrated with frequent feeds.”

How can I tell if my baby has a temperature?

“It’s a good idea to add a thermometer to your first aid kit while you’re still pregnant. A temperature over 37.5 degrees C is considered a fever. In a baby younger than three months, a temperature above 38 degrees C, although most likely a viral illness, could be a sign of a more serious infection such as a urinary tract infection, chest infection, meningitis or septicaemia. If this happens, you must take your baby to a doctor.

“You should also be aware that a low temperature can be a sign of illness, so even if your little one does not have a fever, you should seek medical attention if your child has other worrying symptoms. Very young babies may have an infection transmitted during birth, so we are always more vigilant with them.”

Is flu dangerous in babies?

“This common viral illness is spread by coughs and sneezes and symptoms include a temperature, headache, aches and pains, a cough and a feeling of tiredness. Of course it’s more difficult to spot in babies as they can’t tell you how they feel!

“As with all illnesses, younger infants are more vulnerable. There is a flu vaccination that is given as a nasal spray, available for children aged two years and above and you can also choose to have a vaccine for your baby given as an injection from six months,” says Dr Yiannis.

“There are complications of flu such as a severe chest infection; you should see a doctor if your baby has breathing difficulties. Symptoms take about a week to go away but in the meantime, make sure your baby has plenty of fluids, and pain relief if needed.”

Read about some of the most common concerns for new parents and how Dr Yiannis reassures first- time Mummies and Daddies.

What about ear infections?

“Frequent colds can lead to a build-up of fluid in the middle ear and ear infections are very common. Symptoms include pain, fever, loss of hearing, and listlessness. Ear infections are common in babies from six to 15 months and one in four will have had at least one before the age of 10.

“You may notice your little one pulling at their ear or if they are able to speak, they may say they have a pain in the ear. They may also have the symptoms of a cold,” says Dr Yiannis. “Ear infections should often get better on their own pain relief is all that is needed.

‘You are not usually offered antibiotics for ear infections but in some cases, they may be given to prevent complications, or if the symptoms are severe or are not improving,” explains Dr Yiannis.

“If a child has recurrent ear infections, they can get a condition called glue ear, a build-up of fluid in the middle ear. In more severe cases this can affect hearing and speech development and your child will need to see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to see if they would benefit from having grommets (small tubes) inserted to drain away the fluid.”

Read Dr Yiannis’ guide to baby vaccinations

What can I do to help my child with a tummy bug?

“Babies can be miserable if they develop vomiting and diarrhoea, known as Gastroenteritis, caused by viral or bacterial infections. This can affect all ages but young children can be more severely affected due to dehydration,” says Dr Yiannis.

“Again, the important thing is to keep baby well hydrated; you can also use
a rehydration solution (available at the pharmacy) that replaces any fluids, salts and electrolytes they have lost.

“Signs that your baby is becoming dehydrated include your baby having fewer wet nappies, dry lips and a sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on top of the head).

“If there is blood in the poo, or your child looks pale, these may be signs of a more serious bacterial gastroenteritis; green vomit can be a sign of an obstruction in the bowel and these all need urgent medical attention.

“The good news is that children usually bounce back very quickly from
all these minor illnesses. If you are concerned about your child during their illness, always consult your GP and don’t forget to look after yourself too as all these illnesses spread very easily.


If your child displays any of these signs, seek urgent medical help:

  • Your child looks unwell and is unlike their usual self
  • They look pale and/or have cold hands and feet
  • They are less responsive than usual and seem lethargic
  • They start having breathing difficulties or are breathing rapidly
  • They develop a rash, especially combined with a fever
  • In babies: the soft spot on the head (fontanelle) is bulging or very sunken

With our grateful thanks to Dr. Yiannis Ioannou

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