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Over-the-counter cough and cold medicine: what you don’t know CAN hurt you

December 16, 2013

Did you ever play tag when you were a kid? I remember running around the playground in a desperate panic to avoid whomever was “it." I would run like my life was in jeopardy and strategize about how best to avoid the awful fate of being tagged.

It occurred to me recently that I still do this as a parent, except a little more subtly. I try to outrun the cough and cold season. I try my best to keep my child away from any other kids who may be getting sick. I scrutinize each child who approaches mine on the playground for any suspicious green secretions. I cringe anytime a kid puts something in their mouth and then kindly passes it along to mine. And yet, the “it” is sometimes inevitable; we all get sick.

When our children get sick, we feel helpless. We want to do everything we can to comfort them and get them healthy again. And, let’s be honest, we parents want a good night’s sleep, too. With these good intentions, many parents turn to over-the-counter medicines to ease their child’s suffering without realizing the inherent dangers involved.

What are over-the-counter cough and cold medications?

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 decreasing 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

What should every parent know?

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.

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 they 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.

The common cold generally will resolve on its own in 10 to14 days. Cough and cold medicines sold over-the-counter have not been shown to shorten the duration of the illness. There are a number of ways that parents can ease the symptoms of a cold, without giving medications:

  • Use saline drops or saline nasal spray to help with congestion
  • 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

What is a parent to do?

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.

Understanding the drug facts label

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, 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.