Oct 13, 2017, 12:11:22 PM CDT Oct 27, 2023, 3:13:20 PM CDT

Why cold medicines aren't always right for your child

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended for young children. See other ways to care for your child’s cough or cold without medicine.

mother taking care of sick child on the couch mother taking care of sick child on the couch

On average, children suffer from six to eight colds every year. Colds are caused by viruses, which can spread through the air or when germs get on toys or other surfaces from dirty hands, coughs or sneezes. Frequent handwashing, avoiding people who are sick and coughing properly into your sleeve can help prevent the spread of colds. However, children are still likely to get sick because their immune systems aren't as well developed as adults' systems.

Because antibiotics are ineffective for illnesses caused by viruses, you might be tempted to give your young child over-the-counter cold medicines to help them stop coughing or to clear up a stuffy nose. However, these medicines are not designed for babies or toddlers and could have negative effects.

What parents should know about cold medicine for toddlers and young children

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children ages 4 and under – and should only be used under the direction of a physician for children between the ages of 4 and 6. For children under 6 years of age, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines may have more risks than benefits.

"Cold medicines treat the symptoms, but not the root cause of a cold," says Michael Lee, M.D., pediatrician with Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. "They should not be given to children under the age of 6, as they could also cause side effects."

Side effects from cold medicine in children can include:

  • Increase in heart rate
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Convulsions
  • Nausea

Even up to age 12, children may be at an increased risk for these side effects.

You should also avoid giving your child aspirin, which can have dangerous side effects in children. Other fever reducers that may be used to keep your child comfortable include acetaminophen or ibuprofen (for children over 6 months of age). Check with your pediatrician for the correct dose for your child.

Home remedies for cough and cold symptoms

Home remedies are the best way to relieve cold symptoms in young children.

"Instead of giving your child over-the-counter medications, we suggest trying home remedies to relieve symptoms," says Dr. Lee. "These home remedies are generally safe and can help your child find relief and rest."

You may try home remedies such as:

  • Giving your child warm liquids such as caffeine-free tea or broth to loosen up mucus and soothe a sore throat
  • Let your child breathe in warm water vapors from a warm shower, which can loosen mucus
  • Consider using a humidifier to help your child's throat and nose stay moist
  • Help your child rest and sleep to promote healing
  • Give your child cold items like ice cream or popsicles to soothe a hurting throat
  • Use saline solution, such as nose spray, to help loosen mucus in the nose
  • Have your child blow their nose frequently or use a suction bulb if your child cannot blow their nose
  • ONLY if your child is over 1 year old, give them a spoon full of honey to help combat coughing

Remember, your child just needs time to heal. It can take weeks to get over a cold or a cough. Your child's symptoms should gradually get better during this time.

If your child's symptoms get worse, you should always call your child's pediatrician. Children may need to see a medical professional if they have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Asthma
  • Vomiting
  • High fever of over 102°F for older children or over 100.4°F for infants

Your child's pediatrician is always your best resource for medical advice and care.

Learn more

Children's Health Primary Care offers comprehensive health care for children from birth through young adulthood. Our pediatricians combine quality care with evidence-based practice to meet your child’s medical needs. Learn more and find a pediatrician.

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