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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Children’s Cold Medicine: Safety Information

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When your little one is sick with a cold, you may wonder if it's OK to give him over-the-counter medicine. Follow these guidelines to make safe choices.

The first thing to think about: How old is your child? Cough and cold medicines should not be used by kids under 4. So if he's that young, don't give him:

Evidence suggests these cold medicines don't really help, and they have a small risk of serious side effects. Between 1969 and 2006 there were reports that 60 young children died from decongestants or antihistamines.

Since there's no proof that kids' cold medicines help children, some think any risk, no matter how slight, isn't worth it. Most colds run their course in 5 to 10 days -- with or without treatment.

When Your Child Is 4 or Older

Children's cough and cold medicines are considered safe for kids 4 and over. But the FDA recommends you follow these commonsense rules:

  • Always read the package label and follow directions carefully. Many of these medicines contain several drugs. If you're giving a cold medicine to your child that has a painkiller or decongestant in it, make sure you don't give him more of those separately. Too much medicine could be risky.
  • Never increase the dose or give it to your child more frequently than it says to on the package. Too much can cause serious and life-threatening side effects.
  • Don't give adult medicines to kids. Children should only take products marked for use in babies, infants, or children, sometimes called "pediatric" use on the package.
  • Ask your child's doctor if you're not sure if a medicine is right for your child. Remember, cough and cold medicines come in many different strengths.
  • Tell your child's doctor about any other medications your child takes. That way he can check if the cold medicine works safely with them.
  • Always use the measuring device that comes in the medicine package. A teaspoon from your kitchen isn't accurate.

How to Ease Symptoms Without Cold Medicines

Cough and cold medicine isn't the only way to relieve your child's symptoms. You can also try this:

  • Use pain relievers such as children's Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) for body aches. Don't use ibuprofen in children under age 6 months. And don't give aspirin to any child because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious disease.
  • Try saline drops in his nose to clear out mucus.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty to drink. It helps thin his mucus.
  • Use a humidifier in your child's room to add moisture to the dry air.
  • If he has asthma or wheezes, talk to the doctor. Your child may need medicine to open up swollen airways.

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