Cough and Cold Medications for Children

Countless cold and cough medications are out there for kids. Most parents just want their kids to feel better when they get sick and who can blame them? Unfortunately, all those kids' cold medications don't provide the relief they claim to. Many studies performed on these medications have found that their efficacy is doubtful and the side effects are not worth the risk. This list will cover the major types of medications for kids and what, if any, benefit they may have for your child.

1

Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers

Cold and cough liquid medicine in a measuring cup
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OTC pain and fever reducers include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil). Children under age 18 should not be given aspirin unless instructed by a doctor because of a potentially life-threatening illness called Reye's syndrome.

Tylenol (Acetaminophen): Acetaminophen is generally considered safe in infants and children over 2 months old but you should check with your child's doctor for dosing instructions and never give more than 5 doses in 24 hours. It is very easy to overdose on acetaminophen, which could cause serious harm.

Motrin or Advil (Ibuprofen): Ibuprofen is considered safe for children over 6 months old but you should check with the child's doctor for dosing instructions. Ibuprofen can sometimes cause an upset stomach so it should be avoided when a child may have stomach pain.

2

Antihistamines

This includes any medication used for runny noses and itching. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and loratadine (Claritin) are the most widely recognized over-the-counter antihistamines. They have been found to be effective for treating allergies and allergic reactions, but studies have revealed they are ineffective in relieving symptoms when a child has a cold.

There is some evidence that antihistamines can make children sleepy. In some cases though, antihistamines may cause children to become restless, irritable and have difficulty sleeping.

Because of the lack of symptom relief and the potential side effects, antihistamines should not be given to a child under 4 years old and should be used with caution in older kids.

3

Decongestants

Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), have little effect on children when they have colds or upper respiratory infections. They are also prone to causing irritability, restlessness, and nervousness. Since they have no proven benefit for common viral illnesses, they are generally not worth the potential side effects. These medications (Decongestants) have not only been shown to be ineffective for children's cold but they also carry significant risks, and thus are not recommended for use in children under 12 years old.

4

Cough Medications

Coughing is the body's way of clearing out the lungs and generally should not be suppressed. If your child has a cough that won't go away, his doctor should evaluate him so he can treat the underlying cause of cough. Cough suppressants should be avoided because stopping a cough can lead to more serious illness, and the safety and efficacy of cough suppressants have been questioned in some studies.

5

Medications for Vomiting and Diarrhea

Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the symptoms that frighten parents the most in their children. Most parents just want to make their children feel better and want these symptoms to disappear. Unfortunately, vomiting and diarrhea are usually the body's way of eliminating whatever germ is in it. Stopping diarrhea and vomiting with medication can possibly make things worse.

The most important thing to do is to make sure your child is staying hydrated with small sips of Gatorade (mixed half and a half with water) or Pedialyte. Pepto-Bismol should never be given to a child because it contains aspirin. If you are concerned about your child's vomiting or diarrhea, contact his doctor.

6

Antibiotics

Many parents are concerned that their child's illness will only resolve after a round of antibiotics. However, this is usually not the case. Antibiotics will not cure or shorten the duration of a viral illness, such as the common cold or flu. Unfortunately, many antibiotics are often overprescribed because parents insist that they have one so their child will get better sooner. This problem has led to drug-resistant bacteria and they still do not help a child with a viral illness. So if your child's doctor tells you that your child has a virus, don't push for an antibiotic; it won't help anyone.

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  2. Anagnostou K, Swan KE, Brough H. The use of antihistamines in childrenPaediatrics and Child Health. 2016;26(7):310-313. doi:10.1016/j.paed.2016.02.006

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Additional Reading
  • Common Over the Counter Medications Safety and Prevention 10 Jul 13. HealthyChildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • OTC Medications. Parenting Corner Q&A Jun 07. American Academy of Pediatrics.