How to Soothe Your Child’s Cold

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on May 16, 2023
5 min read

There isn't a cure, but there's still a lot you can do to make your child feel better when they have a sneezy, drippy, all-around miserable cold.

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Make sure they rest and get plenty to drink.

When your child drinks extra fluids, it thins their mucus, which helps it to drain. Drinking can also ease their sore throat. Try a variety of fluids, such as warm water or tea with lemon and honey (for children over age 1), ice pops, or chicken soup.

Also, try a cool mist or humidifier in their room. Moist, warm air improves breathing and can ease a dry, sore throat.

If your kid still isn't comfortable, especially at night, should you try children's cold medicine? There is little evidence that medication works, but if you decide to try a drug sold as a cold remedy, do not give it to a child who is under age 6. That is the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Many over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines have more than one ingredient, including some that your child may not need. And some may include a pain reliever, too. If you don't read labels carefully, you may give your child too much medicine.

Always ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about cold medicine for your child. Read the packaging label carefully before giving your child OTC medicine, especially if your child already takes medications.

You've got several choices. 

Saltwater nose drops, gels, and sprays, which you can buy at a drugstore or supermarket, are just as effective as chemical decongestants. They can be used with a bulb suction or nasal aspirator in little ones to clear the nostrils, they don't have any side effects, and you can give them to young children. They can improve your child's stuffy nose. But don't use them for more than 2 to 3 days. If you do, it can make your child more congested.

Decongestants that your child takes by mouth include drugs such as pseudoephedrine. They may have side effects such as being hyper or trouble falling asleep, so don't give them at bedtime. Unfortunately, these medications rarely work for more than an hour or two.

Nose drops such as Afrin are approved by the FDA for children ages 6 and older. Neo-Synephrine is FDA-approved for kids ages 12 and older. They are not recommended for use in children, however. They can worsen congestion if given for more than 3 days.

You can find them in some cold medicines. They dry mucus, relieving symptoms of congestion, but they aren't useful to treat the symptoms of a virus, such as a cold.

They also can cause sleepiness and a dry mouth. Diphenhydramine is an example of an antihistamine.

An expectorant like guaifenesin (Mucinex) may help thin mucus, which lets your child cough it up more easily. They need to drink a lot of water while taking it. There is little scientific evidence that guaifenesin or any chemical expectorant actually works.

Warm tea or water with lemon and honey -- a proven expectorant -- can soothe your child's inflamed throat. Warm liquids can also ease the feeling of a "tickle in the throat" and a dry cough.

Breathing in steam, along with drinking plenty of fluids, can also help loosen up mucus. Be careful not to burn your child with the hot steam. Ask your pharmacist for specific directions and advice.

These medicines, which stop your child from coughing, are rarely the best solution. Coughing lets the lungs clear mucus, and with it, some of the virus that's infecting your child.

Although a cough can keep your kid awake at night, suppressants don't help clear mucus. Get them to drink fluids and use a humidifier in their room instead.

Throat sprays are a soothing way to ease your child's sore throat. But lozenges can cause a child to choke, and you shouldn't give them to young children.

Painkillers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen can reduce a fever and relieve aches. Ask your doctor which type is right for your child. Make sure you don't give them aspirin, which can sometimes lead to a serious condition called Reye's syndrome.

Don't forget to have your child blow their nose often, if they're old enough to understand how to do it. There's no better way to get rid of mucus.

Nasal aspirators can help if your younger child can't blow their nose. Ask your pharmacist where to find them in the store. Choose one with a plastic tip and rubber bulb. These tend to have better suction and are less irritating than the larger, all-rubber style.

Use the aspirator to suction each nostril eight to 10 times in a row. The mucus may come out like a string. If your child is stuffy and nothing is coming out, try three to four drops or sprays of salt water in each nostril. Wait 2 minutes, and then suction again.

Avoid combination products such as expectorant/antihistamine or cough expectorant/cough suppressant. These may work against each other. Some ingredients, such as antihistamines, may not work at all for a virus -- they can't help unless some of the symptoms are actually from an allergy.

Read labels carefully. Many cold medicines contain a fever and pain reliever such as acetaminophen. You don't need to give a separate dose to relieve aches and fever. If you do, you may be "double dosing." This can be dangerous for your child. If your child has a stuffy or runny nose but no aches, avoid painkillers.

Follow dosing recommendations closely, especially with infants. Talk to your pediatrician before you give any over-the-counter medicine to a child under age 4. Antibiotics don't help the common cold.

Consider generic cold medicines. They're cheaper, but they have the same active ingredients as brand-name medicines. They may also contain only one ingredient, which makes it easier to target specific symptoms without double dosing.

Before giving your child a cold medicine, especially if you have a young child, talk to your pediatrician or pharmacist and make sure the medicine is safe.

More often than not, your child's cold will simply run its course, and you won't need to go to a doctor.

But call if you see any of these symptoms, which can be a sign that your child has gotten a secondary infection or a bacterial infection in addition to the virus. Symptoms of a more serious illness may include:

  • Earache or drainage from the ear
  • Fever above 104 degrees, or one that lasts more than 6 days
  • Cold or cough that lasts more than 10 days
  • Bluish skin color
  • Wheezing, fast breathing, or trouble breathing
  • Dehydration (signs include little or no urinary output in 12 hours, cold skin, cracked lips)
  • Extremely irritable
  • Trouble being woken from sleep
  • Seizure
  • Flu-like symptoms that return with a fever and worsening cough
  • Nagging, wet cough that doesn't get better with other treatments