Congestion isn’t fun for anyone. Yet you can breathe easier (pun intended) in knowing this is a very common condition that can be harmless and more of an annoyance than anything else. Though congestion (usually) isn’t a medical emergency, it can be difficult to hear sniffles coming from your baby. This condition happens when extra mucus gathers in the airways and nasal passages. It’s one’s body fighting off foreign bodies like pathogens or pollutants (more on that later). And if there are signs of congestion without mucus or other clogging matter, finding a solution is even more frustrating.
Causes of Congestion
Even the healthiest baby can sound congested. This is due to tiny nostrils and airways susceptible to dryness or even a hint of clear mucus. There are, however, factors that can affect the degree of congestion. While several home treatments can help, there is a point where you should consult a doctor.
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Factors Which Contribute to Congestion
- Premature: premature babies have even tinier nasal passages than full-term newborns. It is not unusual for their breathing to be a bit noisy.
- Air irritants: common airborne particles can cause congestion. Think perfumes, cleaning products, tobacco smoke, and even aromatic diffusers-they can all irritate an infant’s airways.
- Dry air: low humidity can dry out a baby’s nasal passages and lead to congestion. A home HVAC system or living in an arid climate are key culprits of this source of irritation.
- Weather changes: while some people welcome a reprieve from the summer heat, infants are likely to get congested when the temperature cools off, bringing dry air and reduced humidity. Do not be alarmed if your baby sounds congested during the fall and winter. It’s part of the changing weather.
- Deviated septum: This is a condition in which the cartilage that separates the nostrils is misaligned.
Congestion can be attributed to more than developing nasal passages. It can be a symptom of a medical condition ranging from mild but annoying seasonal allergies to a severe illness. Chest-based congestion can result from a cold, flu, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The latter is more common in premature infants, and a telltale sign is plentiful mucus. RSV results from the common cold getting into the lungs and requires prompt medical treatment. Other symptoms of RSV are irritability, lethargy, and poor feeding. Lung-based conditions are more severe and include ailments like bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, or even cystic fibrosis (this can be detected in newborn screenings).
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Signs of Congestion
Several things can signal congested nasal passages. These symptoms include sniffles, a runny or blocked nose, thick or discolored mucus, snoring or noisy breathing, grunting, light coughing, or slight difficulty feeding. If any of these symptoms are accompanied by a fever or vomiting, it’s time to call the doctor. If your infant’s sniffling turns into labored breathing, there is wheezing, their nostrils flare as they breathe, or their chest retracts with every breath, call your doctor immediately. Another sign to look for is the speed of your child’s breathing. A baby takes an average of 40 breaths per minute compared to adults, who take 12-20 breaths in the same span. If your baby takes more than 60 breaths in one minute, go to the emergency room immediately.
Are your baby’s symptoms sending mixed signals? This advice might clear up the confusion.
The Congestion is There, Mucus Isn’t
Your child can seem congested, but there is no mucus present. It’s time to go into detective mode and check for any other symptoms of illness. The first thing to determine is if your baby has a fever. Other things to consider are lethargy, if the child is wetting its diaper sufficiently and frequently (at least every 6 hours), and sleep quality. Is your baby having trouble eating or refusing to eat? If you observe any of these symptoms, consult your doctor to be on the safe side and get the proper treatment(s).
Related: Baby Spitting Up Clear Liquid? Here's When to Call a Doctor
Even if you can’t see mucus, it could still be present. As babies spend a lot of time lying on their bags, the troublesome matter can gather in the back of the nose and throat. This causes the sniffling you might be hearing and want to get cleared up. Luckily, numerous home remedies can help this condition. Warm baths can clear up airways, as can a few saline drops per nostril. If your baby can’t sneeze, try using a nasal aspirator or bulb syringe to eliminate excess mucus. A cool humidifier can mitigate the irritation caused by dry air, and an air cleaner can reduce or eliminate allergens. Try to keep your baby sitting upright when possible (a swing is your ally), and facial massages can help to drain nasal passages. Seek medical advice before using a vapor rub or children’s cold medicine to alleviate the problem.
Are you comfortable giving your baby OTC cold medicines? If so, have a look at these dosing suggestions.