Cough and cold medicines can pose serious risks for young children. Know the facts and understand treatment alternatives.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are the best way to help a child who has a cold feel better — right? Think again. Here's practical advice from Jay L. Hoecker, M.D., an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines don't effectively treat the underlying cause of a child's cold, and won't cure a child's cold or make it go away any sooner. These medications also have potentially serious side effects, including rapid heart rate and convulsions. As a result, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should be avoided in children younger than age 6 years.
Antibiotics can be used to combat bacterial infections but have no effect on viruses, which cause colds. If your child has a cold, antibiotics won't help. It's also important to remember that the more your child uses antibiotics, the more likely he or she is to get sick with an antibiotic-resistant infection in the future.
An over-the-counter pain reliever — such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) — can reduce a fever and ease the pain of a sore throat or headache. Remember, though, low-grade fevers help fight infection and don't necessarily need treatment.
If you give your child a pain reliever, follow the dosing guidelines carefully. Don't give ibuprofen to a child younger than age 6 months, and don't give aspirin to anyone age 18 years or younger. Aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness.
If you want to give your child an herbal or alternative remedy, consult your child's doctor first.
No. The Food and Drug Administration has issued its strongest warning against the use of codeine to treat a cough or pain in children younger than age 12 years. This is due to the potential for serious side effects, such as slowed or difficult breathing.
There's no cure for the common cold, but you can help your child feel better while he or she is toughing it out. Consider these tips:
- Offer fluids. Liquids such as water, juice and broth can help loosen congestion. Warm liquids, such as tea or chicken soup, might have a soothing effect, increase the flow of nasal mucus and loosen respiratory secretions.
- Moisten nasal passages. Run a cool-mist humidifier in your child's room. To prevent mold growth, change the water daily and follow the manufacturer's cleaning instructions. Steam from a hot shower might help, too.
- Use a suction bulb for a baby or young child. This device draws mucus out of the nose. Squeeze the bulb part of the syringe, gently place the tip inside one nostril and slowly release the bulb.
- Use saline nasal drops. Over-the-counter saline nasal drops — or saline spray, for an older child — can loosen thick nasal mucus and make it easier for your child to breathe. For babies or young children, follow up with a suction bulb.
- Soothe a sore throat. Ice cream, frozen fruit pops or cold beverages might feel good on a sore throat. For an older child, gargling salt water or sucking on a piece of hard candy or a throat lozenge might offer additional relief. Hard candy and lozenges — both choking hazards — aren't appropriate for younger children.
- Encourage rest. Consider keeping your child home from child care, school and other activities.
To help your child stay healthy:
- Keep it clean. Teach your child to wash his or her hands thoroughly and often. When soap and water aren't available, provide an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or hand wipes. Keep toys and common household surfaces clean, too.
- Cover up. Teach everyone in the household to cough or sneeze into a tissue — and then toss it. If you can't reach a tissue in time, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.
- Steer clear of colds. Avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold or other communicable infection. Don't allow children to share cups or utensils.
It's also important for your child to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and stay current on his or her vaccinations — including a yearly flu vaccine.
May 03, 2017
- McInerny TK, et al. Textbook of Pediatric Care. Elk Grove Village, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2009:1934.
- Pappas DE, et al. The common cold in children: Management and prevention. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 3, 2017.
- Giving medication to children. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm164427.htm. Accessed Sept. 10, 2014.
- Using over-the-counter cough and cold products in children. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm048524.pdf. Accessed Sept. 10, 2014.
- Stopping germs at home, work and school. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/stopgerms.htm. Accessed Sept. 10, 2014.
- Drutz JE. Sore throat in children and adolescents: Symptomatic treatment. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 10, 2014.
- CDC says "Take 3" actions to fight the flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/preventing.htm. Accessed Sept. 10, 2014.
- Fever and your child. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://patiented.aap.org/content.aspx?aid=5107. Accessed Sept. 11, 2014.
- Sullivan JE, et al. Fever and antipyretic use in children. Pediatrics. 2011;127:580.
- Tobias JD, et al. Codeine: Time to say “no”. Pediatrics. 2016:138;1.
- Codeine cough-and-cold medicines in children: Drug safety communication - FDA evaluating potential risk of serious side effects. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm453379.htm. Accessed Dec. 9, 2016.
- Codeine and tramadol medicines: Drug safety communication – restricting use in children, recommending against use in breastfeeding women. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm554029.htm. Accessed April 21, 2017.