Antibiotics for a Green Runny Nose?

Expert Q&A

Saline followed by suctioning for an infant with a cold.
Nasal suctioning may help relieve symptoms of a cold. Marko Lazarevic/Getty Images

Question: Is a 6-month-old baby too young to take antibiotics?

That is what I was told by a pediatrician in my hometown... I would have to let my little girl's flu just ride itself through. She has a green runny nose and was diagnosed with redness in her throat. I was told it was an upper respiratory infection. Veronica, El Paso, TX

Answer:

Antibiotics, when needed, can be used at any age. In fact, some newborns are prescribed antibiotics as soon as they are born for conditions like:

So she certainly isn't too young for antibiotics, although that doesn't mean that she needed one.

Viral Upper Respiratory Infections

It does sound like she had a simple viral upper respiratory tract infection. This is a common infection that may cause a fever, cough, and yellow or green, runny nose.

Since it is a virus, antibiotics won't help fight the infection, and your pediatrician is right that your baby will have to just get over it on her own.

Other viral infections that should not be treated with antibiotics include:

Even many ear infections don't need to be treated with antibiotics according to the latest guidelines.

Treating a Green Runny Nose

So if you don't get prescribed an antibiotic, how should you treat a green runny nose?

A pediatrician I once worked with when I was in medical school used to recommend the three S's for his patients with colds - Soup, Showers, and Suckers.

How will that help their cold symptoms?

If you think about how you feel when you have a cold, it is easy to see that SOUP helps to increase your fluid intake, breathing steam from hot SHOWERS can help clear your nose, and SUCKERS can help soothe your sore throat.

You can also consider:

  • encouraging your child to get a lot of rest
  • using a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer
  • using saline nasal drops or spray and a nasal bulb or suctioner to clear their nose
  • giving your toddler and older child popsicles to soothe a sore throat and help them stay hydrated
  • controlling their pain or fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen as appropriate for their age and weight

A warm compress might also help to relieve ear pain (placed over the outer ear) or sinus pressure (placed over the forehead and nose).

You shouldn't turn to over-the-counter cold and cough medicines at this age. In fact, they should be avoided in all children under 4 to 6 years of age.

Antibiotics are for Bacterial Infections

Remember that yellow and green mucus doesn't mean that a child has a sinus infection or needs antibiotics.

Antibiotics can have side effects and antibiotic overuse can lead to bacterial resistance.

Instead, according to the latest antibiotic prescribing guidelines, doctors should diagnose and treat a sinus infection when a child has a runny nose, postnasal drip, and/or a daytime cough, which may worsen at night, and that these symptoms have either:

  • lasted for more than 10 to 14 days
  • or include more severe symptoms, such as 3-4 days of fever (over 102 degrees F), in a child that appears ill

Even if your child doesn't need an antibiotic, do call your pediatrician or seek medical attention if your child with a green runny nose is having trouble breathing, is overly fussy and hard to console, or is hard to wake up, etc.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Acute Bacterial Sinusitis in Children Aged 1 to 18 Years. Pediatrics Vol. 131 No. 7 July 1, 2013.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Principles of Appropriate Use for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections. Red Book 2012: 802-805

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