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Cold and Cough Home Remedies for Children: What Works?

Is honey OK for a cough? Should children with a cold avoid thick fluids like milk? WebMD asked the experts.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Hirsch, MD

Concerns about the safety of over-the-counter cold medicines for children have left many parents searching for alternative remedies for children's cold and cough symptoms.

Popular over-the-counter cold and cough remedies for infants have been withdrawn from the market after the FDA warned in January 2008 against giving those types of medicines to children younger than 2 because of the possibility of serious harm or death.

While the FDA is considering whether to change the guidelines for children ages 2 to 11, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association in October 2008 said they would voluntarily change the labels on cough and cold medications to say they should not be used in children younger than 4. An FDA advisory panel made a similar recommendation in October 2008, saying that nonprescription cold medicines should not be given to children ages 2 to 5.

The nonprescription remedies include antihistamines for runny noses, decongestants for stuffy noses, cough suppressants, and expectorants for loosening mucus to relieve congestion.

Children get six to 10 colds a year on average, according to the National Institutes of Health. And as surely as children get the sniffles, parents want to ease their symptoms.

The bad news for parents: No home remedies or cold medicines will make a cold go away faster. A cold usually runs its course in 7 to 10 days. At best, some medicines will relieve symptoms. But even that is in question, says Sheela R. Geraghty, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. She recommends fluids, reducing fever to make a child comfortable, and keeping noses suctioned so babies can eat comfortably.

“To be honest with you, that’s about it,” Geraghty says. “Time is what helps with colds.”

For more specific guidance on soothing coughs and other cold symptoms, WebMD talked to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the FDA, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Geraghty, Rachel Dodge, MD, MPH, a pediatrician with Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, and Joyce Allers, RN, clinical program manager of the School Health Program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Here are their suggestions:

Fluids

Make sure children stay hydrated, and give them what they’re accustomed to drinking. For babies, stick to breast milk or formula for those younger than 6 months. An oral electrolyte solution designed for infants, such as Pedialyte, also can be given. Don’t give straight water to babies younger than 6 months; their kidneys can’t process it correctly and an electrolyte imbalance may occur.

For children older than 12 months, try water, diluted juice, and milk.

Sometimes parents hear that they shouldn’t give milk because it promotes mucus building. That’s an old wives’ tale with no scientific evidence to back it up, Geraghty says. It’s especially important for babies to continue drinking breast milk or formula.

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