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Children’s Cold Medicine: Safety Information

With so many over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines available, you may wonder which cold medicine, if any, is safe for your child. Here is information to help you choose the best treatment for your child.

Are Cold Medicines Safe for Kids?

Makers of over-the counter children's cough and cold medicines agree that these medicines should not be used in children under 4. This includes:

  • Cough suppressants (dextromethorphan or DM)
  • Cough expectorants (guaifenesin)
  • Decongestants (pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine)
  • Antihistamines (such as brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine [Benadryl] and others)

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

Given that there's no evidence that kids' cold medicines help children, some consider any risk -- no matter how slight -- to be unacceptably high.

Most colds run their course within 5 to 10 days -- with or without treatment. 

Safety Guidelines for Using Children's Cold Medicine

Children's cough and cold medicines are considered safe for children 4 and over. However, the FDA recommends the following safety guidelines:

  • Always read the package label and follow directions carefully. Many cough and cold medicines contain multiple medicines including decongestants and pain relievers. If you are giving your child a cold medicine, do not give them an additional pain reliever medicine if the cold medicine contains a pain reliever.
  • Don't use cough or cold medicines in children under 4 years old unless you receive specific directions to do so from your child's doctor.
  • Never increase the dose of a medicine or give the medicine more frequently than is stated on the package. Too much medicine can cause serious and life-threatening side effects.
  • Do not give adult medicines to kids. Children should only take products marked for use in babies, infants, or children (sometimes called "pediatric" use).
  • Ask your child's doctor if you are unsure about the right medicine for your child. Cough and cold medicines come in many different strengths.
  • Tell your child's doctor about any other medicines (OTC or prescription) that are being given to your child. This is so that your child's doctor can review and approve their combined use.
  • Always use the measuring device (dropper, dosing cup, or dosing spoon) that is packaged with the child's medicine. (A kitchen teaspoon is not an appropriate measuring device for giving medicines to children.)

How Else Can I Relieve My Child's Cold Symptoms?

Cough and cold medicine is not the only way to relieve your child's cold symptoms. Here are some other ways to provide relief to your child:

  • Use pain relievers such as Children's Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) for body aches. Do not use ibuprofen in children under age 6 months. Do not use aspirin with any child because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious disease.
  • Try saline drops or saline nasal irrigation to clear thick mucus out of your child's nose.
  • Give your child plenty of liquids to increase hydration and help thin mucus.
  • Use a humidifier in your child's room to add moisture to the dry air.
  • If your child has asthma or wheezes, talk to your doctor. Your child may benefit from a bronchodilator (beta-agonist medication) to relieve swollen airways.


When Should I Call the Doctor?

If your child's cold symptoms worsen or don't go away in a week, call your child's doctor and see if there might be another problem. Sometimes a cold can cause a secondary infection, such as a sinus infection or ear infection.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on July 09, 2014

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