Safely Treat Children's Fever and Pain

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 18, 2022

When your child gets sick, you want to make them feel better as soon as possible. To do so safely, it’s important to follow careful guidelines to ensure that they get the medication they need.

If they're not used correctly, over-the-counter (OTC) children’s medicines can cause serious, even life-threatening complications. These tips can help you avoid that.

1. Read the Drug Facts label every time you use a medicine.

It'll tell you:

  • The active ingredients
  • What the drug treats
  • How much to give your child
  • How often to give it
  • Potential drug interactions or side effects
  • When to call the doctor

Why should you read it if you’ve used the medicine before? Things may have changed since the last time. For example:

  • Your child may have gotten older or gained weight, so the right dosage may be different.
  • They make be taking another medicine that interacts with this one.

2. Look for the active ingredient.

This is what makes the medicine work. You need to know what it is and what it does. It's usually different from the brand name. This means that two different medicines can have the same active ingredient. It’s important to be sure you are not giving your child two meds with the same active ingredient.

Different active ingredients can also do the same thing. For example, both acetaminophen and ibuprofen treat pain and fever. Knowing what makes a medicine work and what it does can also help you avoid giving your child two medicines that do the same thing.

You may want to switch from one to the other if it's not working correctly.

3. Give the right formula.

Medicines to ease cold and flu symptoms have different formulas for children and adults. Never give an adult cold medicine to a child, not even in a smaller amount.

4. Always follow dosage instructions.

Some use weight as a guide and others use age. Be sure to do what the package says. For those based on how old a child is, it’s a good idea to talk with your child’s doctor if your kid is very light or very heavy for their age. That way, you can be sure that you are giving the right amount of medicine.

Never give more than the recommended dose.

5. Only use the dosing tool that comes with the medication.

Don't ever use a kitchen spoon or a dosing cup from a different medicine to give your child medication. Kitchen spoons can vary in size, as can dosing cups. So you can’t be sure that you’re giving the correct amount. If you misplace the dosing device that came with the medicine, talk to your pharmacist. Just be sure that the markings on your dosing device match the dose listed in the Drug Facts box on the medication label.

6. Know your measurement abbreviations.

When reading the label, make sure you can tell the difference between a tablespoon (tbsp) and a teaspoon (tsp), as well as between a milligram (mg), milliliter (mL), and ounce (oz).

7. Don’t give your child medicine in the dark.

Children are often sick at night, so it’s not unusual to be half awake and fumbling for medicine in the dark. Take a minute to turn on the lights and put on your glasses so that you can clearly read the label and dosing device. If your child is already sick, keep the meds close by if you give them after the sun goes down.

8. Ask your doctor or pharmacist before you give more than one OTC medicine.

If your child has a cough and a headache, it may make sense to give them two medicines -- one for each problem. But many cold and flu meds have the same ingredients as pain relievers. If you give your child both, it could lead to an accidental overdose.

Reading the label can help you spot the same ingredients. Still, you should check with the pharmacist or doctor before you use more than one OTC medicine.

9. Treat colds without medication.

Children who have nasal congestion can use saline nasal drops or nasal spray, fluids, and a cool mist humidifier instead of OTC medications. Suction can help a stuffy nose.

10. Don’t give cough and cold medicines to children under 4.

According to the FDA, the benefits of these aren't worth the risks of the serious side effects that can come from using them too much in children under 4 years of age.

It may be best to avoid things like oral or nasal decongestants, antihistamines, expectorants, and cough suppressants in children under age 4. But honey may be helpful to treat nighttime cough in children more than a year old.

Always call your doctor if your infant has a cold or a fever.

11. Do not give aspirin to children under age 18.

Giving aspirin to a child can cause a rare, life-threatening condition called Reye’s syndrome. Never give your child something with aspirin in it unless your doctor recommends it.

12. Know when to call the doctor.

If your child has had a cold for a few days and is not getting any better or gets worse, call their doctor right away. Don’t give any medicine for longer than the amount of time recommended on the box.

Show Sources


FDA: ''Kids Aren't Just Small Adults - Medicines, Children and the Care Every Child Deserves,'' ''Nonprescription Cough and Cold Medicine Use in Children,'' ''Using Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Products in Children,'' and ''Got a Sick Kid? Don’t Guess. Read the Label. Make Sure You’re Giving Your Children the Right Medicine and the Right Amount.''

Be MedWise: ''Ten Tips for Parents.''

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Acetaminophen Toxicity in Children,'' ''American Academy of Pediatrics Urges Caution in Use of Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Medicines.'' “OTC Cough and Cold Medicines and My Child: What Do I Need to Know?”

American Academy of Pediatrics: Healthy Children: “Over the Counter Medicines,” “My Child Seems to Get a Lot of Colds. Is This Normal?” “Reye Syndrome,” “When to Call Your Pediatrician.”

U.S. Pharmacist: “Pediatric OTC Cough and Cold Product Safety.”

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