Signs Your Baby Has a Sore or Red Throat and What To Do

Can a baby have a sore throat? The answer is yes, they can. Babies may have a sore or red throat, but they can’t tell you it hurts. And since the signs and symptoms of a red or sore throat in a baby are similar to the common cold or teething, it can be confusing to understand why it happens. The cause of a sore throat can be infections, such as bacterial, viral, or fungal infections, or internal or external irritants.1

There are 7.3 million outpatient doctor visits each year in the United States for a sore or red throat in children.1 So many sore throats! So, the most important thing to know about your baby’s sore throat is when to call your doctor.

The symptoms of an infant or toddler with a sore throat can vary according to the cause. You may notice that your baby is experiencing more fussiness, difficulty swallowing, drooling more than usual, showing changes in eating or drinking patterns, or having a hoarse or painful cry. The confusing part for parents is that these signs and symptoms can resemble other common baby issues, such as the common cold, teething, allergies, etc. So, here’s a list of the most common signs to watch out for:1,2

  • Irritability: Babies with sore throats can be fussy and harder to comfort.
  • Difficulty swallowing: Your baby may have trouble swallowing, which may lead to more drooling or spitting up.
  • Coughing: A persistent cough, especially if it is hoarse or dry, may indicate (or lead to) a sore throat.
  • Food refusal: Babies with a sore throat may be reluctant to eat or drink because of the pain.
  • Fever: A mild fever can accompany a sore throat, so monitoring the progress of the fever can be helpful.
  • Behavioral changes: Your baby may be more tired or have difficulty sleeping due to discomfort.
  • Redness at the back of the throat: Obvious redness at the back of the throat or red dots on the roof of the mouth may indicate an illness.

A sore or red throat is a common illness in children, usually caused by a virus such as the common cold. Babies can have up to seven colds on average in their first year, especially if they have older siblings or attend a daycare. This is due to their constantly growing and changing immune system, which is new and learning to work better.3,4 A viral illness causes most sore throats, so a sore throat will usually go away on its own without help from a doctor. Here are some common viruses that can cause a sore throat in a baby:2

  • Common cold
  • flu
  • Croup or croupy cough (a childhood virus characterized by a harsh, barking cough)

Bacterial infections can also cause a sore throat. Streptococcus is the most common bacterial infection that causes sore throats in children, particularly group A Streptococcus.2 However, strep throat is rare in children under 3 years of age.4 Other causes of a sore throat in a baby or toddler can be:2

  • Allergies: Seasonal allergies or allergies to pet dander, mold, dust, pollen, etc., can lead to postnasal drip, which can irritate and inflame the throat. This is uncommon in infants but may become more common as infants enter the toddler years.
  • Dryness: Dry indoor air can be rough and scratchy in the throat. This is common during the winter when the heating system in your home runs frequently.
  • Annoying: This refers to outdoor and indoor pollution, including tobacco smoke or airborne particles from burning fossil fuels and common household chemicals.
  • Close quarters: Viral and bacterial infections spread quickly wherever people congregate, whether in childcare centers, classrooms, offices, or airplanes.

Yes. Babies can get strep throat, but it’s rare in children under 3 years old.4 Streptococcus, specifically group A Streptococcus, is the most common bacteria that can cause sore throat infections in children.2 It is important for parents to know the signs of a baby’s sore throat.

Young Caucasian mother breastfeeding her newborn baby girl at home.

Humidifiers are a great way to help a sore throat. They add moisture to the air, which helps mucus membranes stay moist, and they can help thin mucus. Often, a baby’s sore throat is associated with mucus flowing down the back of the throat. In this case, a humidifier may be the right approach. Along with humidifiers, here’s a list of other treatments to help soothe your baby’s sore throat:4,5

  • Nasal suction: It helps clear any loose congestion and mucus from the nose. Drop of salt help loosen mucus.
  • Breastfeeding: When not feeling well, breastfed babies sometimes want to feed more often. It soothes the baby and provides the necessary fluids and nutrition they need.
  • Frozen liquids (for older babies): It’s important to make sure your baby is still getting enough fluids. Frozen popsicles o The pedialyte is out is good Younger babies can use frozen formula or breast milk in the form of a homemade popsicle.
  • Over-the-counter pain medication: It will help with pain and swelling of sore throat. Contact your provider for their recommendation on what medication and dosage to use.
  • Lots of liquid: Making sure your baby gets plenty of fluids during his sore throat is very important.

If you’re not sure which treatment will work best for your baby, call your doctor’s office for advice.

A red or sore throat is common in children and infants. Usually, the cause is a virus like the common cold, which usually resolves on its own in about seven to 10 days.7 But what if the sore throat seems worse than usual or doesn’t get better? Here are some everyday situations that mean it’s time to call the doctor:

  • Your baby seems to be having trouble breathing, or his breathing seems different.
  • Your baby is having trouble swallowing, especially if they are drooling more than usual.
  • Your baby seems to have a stiff neck.
  • Your baby has a fever (101 degrees F or higher) that does not go down with acetaminophen or ibuprofen or rises again after it goes down briefly.
  • Your baby refuses to drink or drinks less than usual.
  • The pain seems intense, and their crying gets worse.
  • Your baby develops a rash (other than diaper rash).
  • Your baby is so sleepy that he has trouble waking up or staying awake.
  • Your baby starts throwing up, or has been around someone (especially a family member) who has strep throat.

In general, certain sore throat medications are not recommended in children. Sometimes, your pediatrician will recommend certain pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (only for children over 6 months of age).6 You should ask your pediatrician for advice about any over-the-counter medications.

A mother holding a young baby in the living room.  The baby is sick with a slight cough

Here are some tips for handling your baby’s sore throat or red throat:

  • Keep your child’s head up to let the mucus come out of their nose.
  • Wash your hands often to prevent germs from passing to each other. (Alcohol-based hand sanitizers is also suitable for this.)
  • Disinfect (at least once a day) commonly touched areas of the whole family, such as doorknobs, toilet handles, water faucets, cellphones, TV remotes, etc.
  • Do not share drinking cups or utensils. Do not clean a baby’s pacifier by putting it in your mouth, or you may get sick.
  • Give your baby some fluids if they have trouble swallowing, or make homemade popsicles from breast milk or formula.
  • Monitor their temperatureand if it reaches 101 degrees Fahrenheit for more than three days in a row, call your provider to let them know.
  • Use saline nasal drops to relieve nasal congestion and remove it with a bulb syringe or suction device. Also, use a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.

A sore or red throat is a common symptom in infants, usually due to a viral illness or an internal or external airborne irritant. Most sore throats resolve on their own without medication or home remedies within seven to 10 days. If the baby develops other symptoms of illness or does not seem to be getting better, contact your physician for advice. And when your baby is fully recovered, you can enjoy their sweet smiles and laughter again!

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