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What To Know About Children’s OTC Medications

When it comes to calming fevers, quieting coughs or settling upset stomachs, parents often turn to over-the-counter (OTC) medications. These can provide immediate comfort for minor illnesses and ailments, but choosing the right medicine and giving the proper dose is key when it comes to your child’s safety. 

Popular Children’s OTC Medications 


Vitamins are not one size fits all, so discuss adding a daily vitamin with your primary care physician (PCP) to ensure your child is getting what they need. If a child has a history of anemia or lower hemoglobin, a multivitamin with iron might be recommended. A child who attends day care or is frequently sick may need a vitamin with vitamin C or zinc for immunity support. Most importantly, make sure it’s formulated for your child’s age, whether it’s a chewable tablet or a gummy vitamin. 

Cold, Cough, Flu

An estimated 10 percent of children in the United States use over-the-counter cough and cold medications each week. The most common age group is children 2 to 5 followed by children under 2, so proper dosing is vital. Most cough medications are formulated for children ages 4 and up, but options do exist for younger children. Be sure to use the child-specific version of any medication and not the adult formulation. 


  •  Under 2: Always consult your pediatrician.

  • 2 and up: Children’s Zyrtec, Children’s Claritin and Children’s Allegra available in liquid form.

  • 6 and up: Children’s Benadryl, plus dissolvable tablets and chewable versions of the previously mentioned children’s allergy medicines. 

GI Symptoms

If a child has food poisoning or a stomach bug, diarrhea is a way for the body to flush it out. Imodium and other OTC anti-diarrheal medications should never be used in children due to the risk of toxic megacolon, a paralysis of the intestine that causes it to swell and possibly perforate. Instead, feed your child a lactose-free diet or banana, rice, applesauce, toast (BRAT diet). Also add on an age-appropriate probiotic to help replenish the good intestinal bacteria. 

If there is no significant improvement after up to three days of treatment, make an appointment with your pediatrician. 

To relieve gas, colic and minor stomach pains, mylicon gas drops or gripe water are recommended. Children over 12 may take antacid tablets. 

Pain Medications

Tylenol and Motrin are the most common OTC pain medications. Depending on the type of pain, you’ll need to determine with your pediatrician how long to treat the pain at home before bringing your child in to explore the cause. 

Common Mistakes When Using OTC Medications 

  • Failing to follow directions regarding frequency, either overdosing or underdosing, or administering only one dose a day instead of as directed on the medication’s package.

  • Giving too much medication too frequently can result in an overdose. A Tylenol overdose, for example, can cause liver failure. A Motrin overdose can cause kidney failure. Many medications limit the number of doses within a 24-hour period, so be sure to follow maximum dosage guidelines.

  • For decongestants and fever/cold medicines, parents occasionally underdose a child. In these instances, the fever may not go away or return faster than usual, or a runny nose may not improve.

  • Taking probiotics in the absence of a stomach ailment. Probiotics should be used to replenish healthy bacteria in the gut when flushed out by diarrhea. Taking probiotics regularly has not been proven to help with health in other settings.

  • Vitamins can be mistaken for candy, but an abnormal or toxic level of vitamins in the body can lead to hypervitaminosis. Give only the number recommended daily for your child’s age.

  • Overdosing of cold medications can cause an increased heart rate.

  •  If your child is younger than the designated age listed on the medication, consult your pediatrician regarding the proper dose. 

What To Know Before Giving Meds

  • If your child is taking a prescribed medication, check with your PCP before adding supplemental OTC medications to ensure there are no possible adverse interactions. In addition, tell your PCP what OTC medications your child is taking when adding a prescription medication.

  • If your child has a pre-existing condition, check with your PCP before using an OTC medication. For example, if a child has a cardiac issue, cold medicines such as Sudafed and Triaminic can increase their heart rate. 

  • Most over-the-counter medicines are dosed based on age. Some provide a dose for weight. If you follow the instructions printed on the bottle, you should not overdose your child. But if there is concern or you want to confirm dosage, don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician. 

When To See Your Doctor

If symptoms do not improve after two to three days, it’s time to make an appointment with your pediatrician to determine whether additional treatment or prescription medications are necessary.


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