Teething babies and sick babies might show symptoms that are so similar, it can be hard to tell conditions apart. Your doctor is the best judge, but some differences are clear that distinguish teething from illness, giving you some guidance. It is important to have your pediatrician provide a diagnosis because treatments differ, and some conditions require prescription medication.
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Teething causes clear mucus, but not nasal discharge. A clear mucus coming from the nose might be from a cold. Yellow, gray or green mucus can also indicate a cold, though allergies are another possibility. Eye drainage indicates infection or allergy. Other symptoms of colds and infections include cough and fever. Fever might present with teething, but rarely does the fever go over 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, teething generally causes mild symptoms, whereas flu and cold symptoms can appear abruptly and worsen quickly. Suspect a flu or other illness if your child vomits or has diarrhea. Congestion or coughing before a fever usually happens with a cold.
A teething child might have painful or sensitive gums, but that is not the only reason why there could be pain in that area. Sometimes when a tooth erupts through the skin, it breaks a blood vessel in the process. This creases a blue mass approximately the size of a pea on a baby's gum. A mass and a small amount of blood are normal, but if there are several teaspoons worth of blood or if the bleeding does not stop when you apply pressure, call your pediatrician immediately. Also consult your pediatrician if the entire gum or a large portion is blue.
Ear pulling can indicate either an ear infection or teething, especially in babies 6 months or older. Younger babies might just cry or flail their limbs. Pain sometimes radiates from the teeth to the ears during teething, prompting the baby to pull their ears. An ear infection can cause the same response. However, a fever greater than 102 degrees Fahrenheit and worsening pain are more likely to be from an ear infection. Also, cold symptoms or loss of hearing relates exclusively to ear infections. Consider also that some babies simply like to pull on their ears even when nothing is wrong.
Treatment varies extensively for teething babies and illnesses. Teething rings, cold objects to bite on, a topical teething gel and ibuprofen might help a teething baby. If your child has an ear infection, no treatment might be the best course because most ear infections resolve on their own. The American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend antibiotics for children 6 months and younger. For colds, no medication can speed recovery. Your doctor might recommend infant acetaminophen or ibuprofen, however, to relieve a fever. She might also recommend an antiviral medication if your child has the flu.