Infant Congestion: 8 Common Causes and Treatment Options

Infant congestion is a condition that many parents spend a great deal of time and energy battling. We adults understand how annoying it can be to have congestion, or stuffiness and difficulty breathing through the nose, especially at night time when this condition can interrupt your sleep. When your little one begins feeling the effects of congestion, he or she will show some tell-tale signs of their discomfort. In order to provide the best treatment for your little one, you must first discover the most likely cause behind the congestion. The following list contains eight common causes behind infant congestion as well as corresponding treatment options for each one.

1.       Dry Air

Dry air is one of the most likely culprits behind congestion in infants. The nose is made up of a vast network of air passages, each one containing a lining that secretes mucus. In regulated amounts, the mucus works as a lubricating agent to prevent the delicate tissues of the nasal passages from becoming dry and irritated. When irritation does occur, the linings of these passages become inflamed which results in swelling and sensitivity. As the walls of the passages close in, the amount of space left for air to flow through becomes diminished which results in breathing difficulty or the inability to breathe through the nose altogether.

We all suffer the effects of dry air once in a while. The winter season is a prime time for nasal congestion because home heating units reduce the relative air humidity, so much that the air will pull moisture from objects and people. Basically, when the air inside your home is dry, it can pull moisture from peoples’ skin and the nasal and oral tissues. A great way to combat dry air inside the home is to use a humidifier to throw moisture back into the air. Electric humidifiers come in two types: warm mist and cool mist. In large, open spaces it is acceptable to use warm mist humidifiers when your infant is in the room, as the heat from the water vapor will quickly dissipate before it reaches your child. If you choose to run a humidifier in your baby’s room, especially at night time, the safest option is the cool mist humidifier. Put the humidifier close to the baby’s crib so that the vapor can rise and moisturize the air around your child. This will condition the air that your baby breathes and will reduce congestion flare-ups tremendously.

2.       Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is another common condition in infants, but many parents do not realize that it can act as a trigger for congestion. We all experience acid reflux sometimes, but babies are much more prone to developing chronic acid reflux, a condition known as GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). There are a few factors that can cause a flare-up of acid reflux. For infants, the possibilities include overeating, taking in too much air while eating, and lying down too soon after eating. When an infant’s stomach becomes full, the band of muscles keeping the stomach shut may be pried open due to the force of the stomach’s contents. As these muscles create an opening, the child may spit up milk, food particles, or even stomach acid. The condition can be quite painful, especially if reflux allows acid to divert into the nasal cavity, similar to what one might experience when forcefully vomiting. When this does occur, the child’s nasal passages can become irritated and swollen, which makes it difficult to nasally breathe. For an adult, this is an inconvenience but not something that can’t be managed; but for an infant, this can be a serious problem because babies often rely on the ability to nasally breathe when drinking a bottle or breastfeeding. Most babies also prefer to breathe through their noses while sleeping.

If you believe that your baby has acid reflux, you may begin the treatment process by monitoring your child’s milk intake to ensure that he or she is not overeating. Some parents struggle with “comfort feeding,” which is a situation in which a child uses bottles or breastfeeding as a soothing action rather than for actually eating; this is similar to how some children use pacifiers to calm down. A situation like this could easily lead to a child consuming too much for their tummy to hold which in turn causes an acid reflux flare-up. You may also want to get your child a bouncy chair or an infant pillow that allows the upper body to be propped up rather than fully reclined. This will dramatically reduce acid reflux by moving pressure away from the opening of the stomach. In some cases, it may be necessary for infantile GERD to be managed using a medication specifically prescribed for the baby.

3.       Cold or Flu

As sad as it is to see a little one succumb to the ravages of a cold or flu bug, it does happen. Oftentimes, a cold or flu virus will trigger excessive mucus production in a child’s nasal passages. This often causes pressure and a feeling of fullness in the nose and face. The excess buildup in the nasal passages makes it very difficult for air to pass through and therefore the child is usually forced to breathe through his or her mouth.

Viral cold and flu illnesses cannot be managed using an antibiotic, therefore parents can only hope to conquer the symptoms brought on by the illness until their child’s immune system wins the battle. The first step is to clear away as much nasal mucus as possible. The best tools for this task are saline solution and a bulb syringe. Saline solution can be purchased over-the-counter at most pharmacies or you can make your own by boiling 8 ounces of water and dissolving 1/4 teaspoon of salt into the water. Allow the water to cool to a lukewarm temperature before using it. Lay the child on his or her back and gently tilt the head back. Place one or two drops of saline solution into each nostril and try to keep the baby’s head relatively still for about 10 seconds. The saline solution will help to break down sticky, hard-to-remove mucus. The bulb syringe, which most parents receive in the newborn care kit from the hospital, can be used to slowly and gently remove mucus from each nostril.

4.       Allergies

Another possible cause behind infant congestion is allergies. An infant’s immune system is in a delicate state for the first year of life which makes the child more susceptible to allergens. An allergen is an item that triggers an immune system response because the body believes that this item—which could be a cleaning product, dust, pollen, perfume—is potentially harmful to the body. One symptom that can arise as a result of the child’s immune system “raising its hackles” is congestion. Inflammation in the soft tissues in the nose and sinus cavity can make it difficult for the child to breathe and the mucous membranes within these tissues may go into overdrive. Unlike the type of congestion that typically accompanies an illness, allergy-induced congestion tends to make breathing through the nose a difficult task regardless of whether the child is lying down or sitting up.

The typical signs of long-term congestion may be accompanied by the child thrusting his or her nose upward, wiping their nose, suffering itchy and/or watery eyes, and a persistent dry cough. Symptoms caused by contact with an allergen can develop within minutes of exposure or it could take up to 24 hours to pop up. Discovering the source of the allergy is the key to alleviating the baby’s symptoms without the use of allergy medicine. The most likely allergens to cause nasal congestion include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold. Consider giving the house a very good cleaning, including vacuuming carpets and renting or buying a steam cleaner for carpets and upholstery. To filter out unwanted air debris, try to replace the air conditioner filter every month. If it seems that your child may be allergic to dog or cat dander, it may be time to consider limiting your pet’s access to certain parts of the house or getting rid of the animal altogether. Parents who have trouble determining the source of the child’s allergy may opt to have an allergy test done by a medical professional.

5.       Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is certainly not uncommon in children, although most outgrow this condition before adulthood. An intolerance is quite different from a true food allergy in that the symptoms that accompany an intolerance are not life-threatening. The symptoms of a food intolerance can vary, but some common reactions include nasal congestion, upset stomach, acid reflux, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rash. There are three common culprits linked with infantile food intolerance: dairy, tree nuts, and wheat/gluten. Even if the child drinks formula milk or is breastfed, the milk that he or she consumes may contain a protein that causes a reaction within the child’s body. Unless the label states otherwise, most infant formula contains lactose, which is the protein in dairy products to which some individuals are intolerant. A mother who breastfeeds her child may be consuming dairy, nuts, or gluten products which can be passed to her child through her milk.

The best way to determine whether a food intolerance is present in an infant is to consider weaning the child off of one food category at a time for at least one full week. A formula-fed baby should be switched to a soy-based milk to see if the congestion clears up. A mother who breastfeeds her child will need to start by eliminating certain foods from her diet for at least one week, preferably starting with dairy products. If dairy does not seem to be the issue, move on by eliminating all products containing tree nuts. If this fails, consider eliminating all gluten/wheat products from the mother’s diet.

6.       Air Irritants

Babies are fragile in all respects and the environment to which a child is exposed can have a major impact on the individual’s health. For an infant, air irritants that may be present can cause long-term symptoms, including congestion. The air quality in a person’s household can be influenced by many factors such as smoking, the use of a wood stove, chemicals, dust, mold, and nitrogen dioxide. Although it can be costly, it might be worthwhile to purchase a home air quality testing kit. This is a reliable way to tell whether there are any toxic components floating around in the air. An air filtration system can be used to remove everyday irritants from the air, as can frequent replacement of the air conditioner filter.

7.       Sinusitis

Sinusitis is slightly less common in infants than some of the other points mentioned above, but it is still an option worth bearing in mind. Sinusitis is the inflammation of the lining of the nose and in the sinus cavity. The symptoms that accompany this condition include congestion, headache, production of thick yellow mucus, puffiness under the eyes and around the nose, and persistent bad breath. Sinusitis can develop as a stand-alone condition, but it can also develop after a cold or flu. The congestion caused by sinusitis can be managed using saline solution and a bulb syringe once or twice each day. A cool mist humidifier may also help to dislodge and break up mucus. If sinusitis is caused by bacteria, the child’s doctor will likely recommend using an antibiotic medication.

8.       Foreign Object

A curious young child with the impulse to grab anything he or she can get their hands on also means the potential for accidents involving foreign objects. Small pieces of food, toys, and even decorative pieces like rocks or marbles are easy targets for an infant. A much favored way for a youngster to become better acquainted with such an item is to stick it up his or her nose. If you see your child doing this, you stand a pretty good chance of being able to retrieve the item yourself. Never use a cotton swab or tweezers to remove the item as this could actually push the object farther up your child’s nose. If the item cannot be easily retrieved, take your child to the doctor as soon as possible.

Sometimes a child can work so fast that you may not catch the action. In this case, you will have to keep your eyes open for some tell-tale symptoms of a foreign object in the nose: nose-wiping or picking, difficulty breathing through the nose, swelling (usually limited to one nostril), fluid draining from the affected nostril, and an odd sound coming from the child’s nose (typically a whistling sound as air struggles to pass around the object). If the object cannot be seen or reached, the child should be taken to the doctor. The doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or nasal spray to prevent infection, particularly if the child’s nose produces discharge.