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

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, 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, Minn.

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. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discourages use of cough and cold medicines for children younger than age 2.

Are cough and cold medicines a problem for children older than age 2?

FDA experts are studying the safety of cough and cold medicines for children older than age 2. In the meantime, remember that cough and cold medicines won't make a cold go away any sooner — and side effects are still possible. If you give cough or cold medicines to an older child, carefully follow the label directions. Don't give your child two medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine, decongestant or pain reliever. Too much of a single ingredient could lead to an accidental overdose.

What about antibiotics?

Antibiotics may 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.

Oct. 18, 2011 See more In-depth