Teething or something else?

Teething gets blamed for a lot of things in a baby’s life, from sleepless nights and those inevitable “I just want to be held” moments to runny noses and rosy cheeks.

But how many of the normal symptoms are normal with teething? And more importantly, how are you supposed to tell if that runny nose your baby has is a cold or just a symptom of teething?

When that runny nose is probably related to teething

Teething is a topic of some controversy in medical circles. Most studies show that teething may cause some symptoms, such as making babies fussier, but doesn’t cause rashes or fever.

In fact, some studies have shown parents and caregivers overexaggerate symptoms of teething in their babies.

But still, anyone who’s been a parent knows that teething is different for every baby.

I happen to have four kids. The first three gave me no indications that they were teething.

I’ll never forget the surprise I had when one day, my daughter woke up, smiling and happy, with her first tooth. I had no idea she was teething. But then my fourth baby came along. Teething involved sleepless nights and irritability.

A 2011 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics did find that there are some consistent symptoms that babies can have while teething, especially on the day a tooth pops through and the day after. These include:

  • irritability
  • increased salivation (drooling)
  • runny nose
  • loss of appetite

All of that extra discharge, like the runny nose and increased saliva, the researchers concluded, may be caused by inflammation around the teeth.

There are certain inflammatory responses activated when the tooth is popping through. These activities may also be associated with:

  • diarrhea
  • sleep disturbances
  • rash

When that runny nose may be something else

If your baby’s runny nose isn’t a symptom of teething, your baby most likely has a cold. Colds become more common around 6 months of age. If your baby is otherwise healthy, a cold with little to no fever doesn’t warrant a trip to the doctor, unless you’re concerned.

Here’s when to know that something else is going on.

Does my baby have a fever?

A slight increase in your baby’s temperature is normal with teething. But be careful, because that increase is a very small one.

On average, the normal temperature rise that can occur with teething is about 0.2ºF (0.1ºC). It’s such a small difference that most people would never notice. The highest temperature associated with tooth eruption is about 98.24ºF (36.8ºC) using an ear thermometer, which is within the normal temperature range.

So what does that mean? It means that if your baby has a temperature over 100.4ºF (38ºC) taken rectally (rectal temperatures are the most accurate for babies), then you shouldn’t assume it’s because of teething.

How long has the fever lasted?

The 2011 study also found that teething-related temperature rises only really happen over the three days that a tooth pops through: the day before, the actual day it pops up, and the day after. The study also found that the temperature rise wasn’t high enough to cause a fever.

If your baby has a fever or their temperature stays higher than usual for more than three days, that’s another sign that something else might be going on.

What color is my baby’s snot?

Many parents think that if their baby’s snot turns green, it might mean there’s an infection that requires antibiotics. But this isn’t necessarily the case. However, the color of the snot may let you know if your baby’s runny nose is more likely due to teething.

If your baby’s snot is clear and lasts just two to three days, it may be a result of the extra fluids and inflammatory response trigged by teething. Or it might be a symptom of exposure to a virus, like the common cold, in which case it may last longer.

Any time your baby is exposed to germs, the immune system will start working to fight off those unwanted guests. The body will increase mucus production to flush out the virus or bacteria.

After two or three days, the mucus fills with captured bacteria or viruses after fighting off an infection. The nasal discharge can turn different colors, from white to yellow to green. All those colors are normal and don’t usually require antibiotics.

The takeaway

When a baby is teething, doctors have found symptoms consistent with this process. In addition to irritability, drooling, and loss of appetite, a runny nose is also a symptom. All that extra discharge might be caused by inflammation around the teeth.

A runny nose is a common symptom in babies and may sometimes be accompanied by fever and green or yellow snot. In this case, it’s more likely coming from a cold. However, some symptoms could suggest a more concerning infection. These include:

  • a runny nose or fussiness that gets worse
  • a runny nose that doesn’t improve after 10 days
  • yellow or green discharge for more than 10 to 14 days
  • accompanying symptoms, like a persistent cough, for more than 10 days or fever for more than three days

If your baby experiences any of these symptoms, a trip to the doctor may be warranted.

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children and is the author of “Tiny Blue Lines.”