Children’s Cold Medicine: Safety Information

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on April 11, 2023
3 min read

When your little one is sick with a cold, you may wonder if it's OK to give them 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 they're that young, don't give them:

Evidence suggests these cold medicines may alleviate symptoms temporarily, but 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.

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, fever reducer or decongestant in it, make sure you don't give them more of those separately. Too much medicine could be risky, and your child can get an overdose of medicine.
  • 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.
  • There are many natural and herbal remedies available on the market. Use caution, and check with your physician prior to using them if you are unsure or if your child is under age 4.
  • 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 they 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.

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 their nose to clear out mucus. If your child is young enough, you may be able to bulb suction some of the mucous.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty to drink. It helps thin their mucus.
  • Use a humidifier in your child's room to add moisture to the dry air, especially during winter when the air is drier.
  • If they have asthma or wheezes, talk to the doctor. Your child may need prescription medicine to open up swollen airways. Avoid cold/cough medicines in children with asthma; they can aggravate asthma symptoms.


If your child's symptoms get worse - such as difficulty breathing - or they don't go away in a week, call the pediatrician to see if there's another problem. Sometimes a cold can lead to a sinus or ear infection or pneumonia.