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What you need to know about cough and cold medicine for kids

January 23, 2016

When a child is sick with a cold, a parent’s main concern is making their little one comfortable. Although a cold usually isn’t a serious medical concern, it takes a big toll on kids and their families- sleepless nights and miserable, whiny children make family life difficult for everyone.

Is your child suffering from a cold or the flu? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Learn more here.

It’s understandable for parents to look for relief during this trying time, especially when you recognize that young children typically get six to eight colds a year. That means, if it takes each kid about two weeks to get over a cold, and the cold spreads to other members of the family and takes about two weeks for each of them to get over it, you’re looking at someone in your family dealing with a cough or cold about half of the time.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me cranky just thinking about it.

So as I said, it’s natural to look for a way to ease the symptoms when your children get a cold. And if you’re like me, this quest leads you straight to the shelves of your neighborhood drugstore, looking for a miracle.

What are cough and cold medicines?

These are a group of nonprescription medicines that are found on the shelves of your local pharmacy or grocery store, as well as discount and convenience stores.

They aim to ease the symptoms of illness by helping with congestion, drying a runny nose, suppressing cough and helping with sleep. Some of the common brand names include:

  • Benadryl
  • Delsym
  • Dimetapp
  • Pediacare
  • Robitussin
  • Tylenol Cold and Cough
  • Triaminic
  • Vick’s

When should I give my child a cough or cold medicine?

There have been longstanding concerns among pediatricians regarding the use of cough and cold medicines in young children. When pediatricians have researched the effects of these medicines in kids, they have repeatedly found that they are not effective and even more alarming, are often unsafe.

The common cold generally will resolve on its own in about two weeks (sometimes a little longer). Cough and cold medicines sold over-the-counter have not been shown to shorten the length of the illness.

Furthermore, in the last 40 years, more than 100 children have died after consuming these products. Thousands of emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers arise each year because of problems associated with the use of these medications in children.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a strong statement against the use of these products. The FDA has recommended that cough and cold medication not be used at all in children under 2 years of age.

Although the FDA has not specifically banned the use of these medications in children ages 2 to 6, many pediatricians feel strongly that they should not be used in kids under 6 years of age.

In other words, there is not a lot of benefit to medicating young children with cough and cold medicine, but a lot of harm that can come from it.

What you can do to treat coughs and colds without medication

There are a number of ways that parents can ease the symptoms of a cold without giving cough and cold medication:

  • Use saline drops or saline nasal spray to help with congestion.
  • Use a rubber suction bulb to remove mucus from the nasal passages every few hours and before bed.
  • Have a child drink warm water or herbal tea to ease a sore throat.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and drinks fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Try a humidifier. More humid air helps clear congestion, soothe airways and decrease cough.
  • For children over one year of age, try giving honey for a cough.

If your child has a fever and is feeling very uncomfortable, treat with a fever-reducing medication.

            Find out more information about how to treat a fever, here.

Be sure you give cough and cold medicine correctly

For children under 2 years of age, consult your doctor before giving any over-the-counter cold and cough medicines. For older children, if you choose to give them a medication, make sure you understand what you are giving and how to give the proper dosage.

Many adverse effects related to these medications are due to a caregiver’s misuse or misunderstanding of the directions. Make sure you know how to use the product according to the package directions.

All over-the-counter medications are required to have labeling that looks like this:

Look at the active ingredients- Active ingredients are the part of the medication responsible for its effects. Be sure that you never give two medicines with the same active ingredients without first consulting your doctor or pharmacist.

Understand the product’s approved uses- This section outlines the symptoms and health conditions that this product has been approved to treat or prevent. Use the medication only if your child’s symptoms correspond with the product’s approved uses.

Consider the warnings- The warnings will help you decide whether you can safely administer this medication to your child. It will include information such as:

  • When not to use the medication
  • Conditions that may require advice from your doctor before you use -the medication
  • Possible interactions with other drugs and food
  • Possible side effects of the medication
  • When to stop taking the medication and when to contact a doctor
  • Follow the directions for use- This section of the label tells you how much of the medication to give and how often to give it. Be sure to follow these guidelines exactly. Giving too much medication or giving medication too frequently can produce unwanted side effects or overdose; giving too little medication may mean the medication will not be effective.

Other key pieces of advice

  • Be sure that the product you intend to give is labeled for pediatric use. Adult medicines should never be given to children unless specifically directed by a physician.
  • Be sure to use the measuring device provided with the product to measure the appropriate dosage. The markings on the dosing spoon or cup will correspond with the dosage recommendations on the package.
  • Be sure to check the expiration date. If the product has expired, do not use.
  • When our children get sick, we want to do everything we can to ease their suffering and help them get well quickly, but remember that the world of over-the-counter medicine can be dangerous for small kids.
  • Make sure you know what you’re giving, and if you aren’t sure, ask your pediatrician.