When her 4-year-old son comes down with a cold, Danelle Fisher, MD, chairwoman of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, turns to a few tried-and-true home remedies to help him feel better.
“The first is good hydration -- water, hot tea with lemon and honey, Gatorade, and juice,” she says. “The second is chicken soup. And the third is plenty of rest.”
Although there’s no shortage of over-the-counter (OTC) products that promise to relieve a child’s cold or flu symptoms, “some home remedies really work,” Fisher says. And many times, they do better than a bottle of medicine you buy at the store.
Here’s a breakdown of how to best treat your sick child at home.
“Most OTC drugs for coughs and colds are minimally or not at all effective,” says Vaishali Flask, MD, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's.
Decongestants can also make kids hyper, anxious, or cause their heart to race. Plus, these meds often have more than one drug, so if a child is taking multiple medicines at once, it can be easy for them to get too much of a specific one. And that’s dangerous. Because of this, kids under the age of 4 should never take decongestants.
A safer way to ease a stuffy nose: A nasal wash. “This is an excellent way to clean out the sinuses and help the congestion caused by colds,” Fisher says. Chicken soup is another good option. The warm liquid helps clear mucus from the nose and also prevents dehydration.
Cough syrups can’t cure the cold or flu, and some can cause serious side effects like seizures. The FDA warns against using OTC cough medicines for kids younger than age 2. And doctors aren’t sure how safe these drugs are for older kids.
Instead, give your child a teaspoon of honey. The thick liquid will coat their throat and relieve coughing. But don’t give it to babies under 12 months -- it’s not safe for them.
While you’ll find plenty of natural headache treatments online, “the medical evidence for them isn’t great, especially for treating younger children,” says Steve Lauer, MD, PhD, associate chairman of pediatrics at The University of Kansas Hospital.
If you want to massage a bit of peppermint oil onto your child’s forehead or have them sip ginger tea (two common home remedies), check with your doctor first. You can also use ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but don’t mix them, Lauer says. “See which one works best for your child and use that.”
Do NOT give aspirin to sick children or teens.
“Gargling with salt water may work in older children, if you can get them to do it,” Lauer says. Warm liquids can soothe a painful throat, as can very cold foods like ice pops. Kids older than age 4 can also suck on a cough drop. If none of those help, then you can turn to ibuprofen to give relief.
A temperature is a normal response to a virus. Your child’s body is trying to kill the germs that are making them sick. “A fever doesn’t have to be reduced quickly unless it’s making your child very uncomfortable or they’re not interested in drinking,” Lauer says. In most cases, you can keep them comfortable with a lukewarm bath (no less than body temperature), cool washcloth, or a fan.
Either ibuprofen or acetaminophen will work well at bringing down a child’s temperature. (Again, never give aspirin.) If they’re younger than 6 months old or haven’t been vaccinated, “consult your child's doctor before treating,” Lauer says. “Fever in these children may be a sign of a serious and potentially life-threatening infection.”
While a gentle massage or heating pad may help, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also safely relieve minor aches and pains. Rest, too, is a good choice. Sleep gives your child’s immune system a boost and helps them recover faster.
Keep in mind that both the flu and a cold can linger for 2 weeks. It will take time for your child to feel back to normal. Still, call your family doctor if your child has a fever for more than 3 days, is having trouble breathing, or is in severe pain.