What to Know About Kids and Cough Medications

When a child has a cough, it can be very concerning to a parent. It's difficult to listen to your child cough all day, and it may even keep them up at night. Most parents want to make the coughing stop, but sometimes the best treatment may be to let the child cough—or it's the cause that needs to be treated, not the cough itself.

Mom pouring cough medicine for child

Sean Locke / Stocksy United

Should I Give My Child Cough Medicine?

Over-the-counter cough suppressants are generally not effective for young children, and the FDA has recommended that children under age four should not get any cough or cold medications because they may also have bad side effects.

Prescription cough suppressants can be more dangerous for young children. If a child is coughing so frequently and so hard that they are unable to sleep, there is likely more going on than a cold, and the underlying cause needs to be treated. Suppressing the cough with a prescription cough medication could potentially make things worse.

These medications are also dangerous for children because they contain narcotics. Hydrocodone, or ​codeine, is a narcotic that can slow down a child’s respiratory rate. It can depress the respiratory system so much that the child stops breathing.

When to Be Concerned About a Cough

Most coughs in children are nothing to be worried about, but there are some instances when you should be concerned and call your healthcare provider.

These include:

  • A child who coughs constantly
  • When the cough is accompanied by a fever in a child under three months
  • An infant under three months who has been coughing for more than a few hours
  • An infant or child who makes a “whooping” noise
  • A child who has stridor (a harsh “whistling” noise) when inhaling
  • A child who wheezes (a high-pitched whistling noise) when exhaling
  • A child who is listless
  • An infant who is unable to suck/feed

Call 911 if your child:

  • Looks blue or gray on the face, lips, chest, or inside the mouth
  • Is coughing up blood
  • Has difficulty breathing or who is working hard to breathe
  • Is breathing faster than normal

What You Should Do for Your Child's Cough

If your child has an occasional cough that is not interfering with their sleep, it is best to just let them cough. That's because a cough is the body’s way of expelling things from the lungs that shouldn’t be there.

If your child’s cough is just occasional, these tips may help.

  • Run a cool-mist humidifier in their room at night.
  • Saline drops and suction or encouraging a child to blow their nose often will help with congestion and may help minimize a cough because it will decrease the amount of postnasal drip.
  • If your child has asthma, you should follow the asthma management plan for flare-ups that your child’s doctor has prepared. If you are unsure or do not have a plan, call the doctor immediately.
  • If your child has a “barky” cough, take them into the bathroom with the door closed, turn on the hot water, and let the room get steamy. Stay in the steamy room for about 20 minutes and the cough should subside. If it does not improve, call the doctor.
  • Cool clear liquids (such as water or juice) may be helpful and soothe a child’s throat. Carbonated beverages and citrus juices should be avoided though because they can irritate raw areas in the throat.
  • Do not give over-the-counter or prescription cough or cold medications to your child without contacting your child’s healthcare provider first.

If you have a question about your child’s symptoms or their cough, you should contact their healthcare provider and get advice about what to do. This information is not a substitute for the advice of a doctor.

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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Should you give kids medicine for coughs and colds?

Additional Reading
  • ”Your Child’s Cough.” KidsHealth Oct 05. Nemours Foundation. 
  • ”FDA Issues Alert on Tussionex, a Long-Acting Prescription Cough Medicine Containing Hydrocodone.” FDA News Press Release 11 Mar 08. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 
  • ”Questions and Answers About FDA’s Enforcement Action Regarding Unapproved Hydrocodone Drug Products.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration 01 Oct 07.