Cold medicines for kids: What's the risk?

Cough and cold medicines can pose serious risks for young children. Know the facts and understand treatment alternatives.

By Mayo Clinic Staff
Photo of Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are the best way to help a child who has a cold feel better — right? Think again.

Cough and cold medicines aren't recommended for children younger than age 2 years, and the jury is still out on whether cough and cold medicines are appropriate for older kids. So how can you treat a child's cold? Here's practical advice from Jay L. Hoecker, M.D., an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.

What's the concern about cough and cold medicines for kids?

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.

What about antibiotics?

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.

Can any medications help treat the common cold?

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.

March 01, 2017 See more In-depth