Question: Is it safe to give my 3-year-old child over-the-counter cough and cold medicine?

Answer: Hearing your kids sniffling, sneezing and coughing throughout the day (and even the night) can make any parents worried and anxious. It’s natural for parents to want to do something to help your child feel better as quickly as possible, which includes resorting to one of the many over-the-counter cough and cold medications found in every drugstore. However, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against giving children younger than four over-the-counter cough and cold medications because these medicines haven’t been studied well enough in children of this age group. There are possible side effects such as drowsiness, irritability and behavioral changes as well as other unknowns like the proper dose. For this reason your child is probably better off without these over-the-counter cough and cold medicines unless you have doctor approval. Take heart that a cold will typically run its course in a week or two, and your kiddo will be back to normal in no time.

What can I do instead?

Besides your caring and comfort, there are some home remedies that are safer, cheaper, and more helpful than over-the-counter medicines for your child’s cough and cold symptoms. The following are suggestions from Seattle Children’s Hospital:

Runny Nose: Suction (with something like a bulb syringe) to pull out the liquid out of your child’s nose or ask your child to blow his or her nose.

Blocked Nose:

  • Use salt water (saline) nose spray or drops to loosen up dried mucus by putting 2 to 3 drops in the opening of each nose (nostril), one side at a time. Then ask your child to blow his or her nose or suck out the liquid from the nose with a bulb syringe.
  • You can buy saline nose drops and sprays in a pharmacy without a prescription, or you can make your own saline solution. Add ½ teaspoon of table salt to 1 cup of warm bottled or filtered water.

Coughing: Use homemade cough medicines.

  • Age 3 months to 1 year: Give 1-3 teaspoons (5-15 ml) of warm clear fluids (such as apple juice or lemonade) four times per day when coughing. Under 3 months, see your child’s doctor.
  • Age 1 year and older: Use honey ½ to 1 teaspoon (2 to 5 ml) as needed. Honey thins the secretions and loosens the cough. You can also try mixing the honey in warm water to make it easier for your child to consume the honey. This has the added benefit of helping to hydrate your child, too. If you don’t have honey, you can use corn syrup. Research shows that honey works better than cough syrups to reduce nighttime coughing.
  • Age 6 years and older. Use cough drops to decrease the tickle in the throat. If you don’t have any, you can use hard candy. Avoid cough drops before 6 years due to the risk of choking.

Fluids: Help your child drink lots of fluids. Staying well hydrated thins the body’s secretions which makes it easier to cough and blow the nose.

Humidity: If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Moist air keeps the nose and airway from drying out. Run a warm shower for a while to help put moisture in the air. Sometimes, it can be helpful for your child to sit in the bathroom and breathe the warm mist from the shower.

Remember, it takes time

We understand you would do anything to make your child feel better quickly. Cold symptoms in kids can last for 2 weeks—this seems like a long time but try your best to not over-treat your child’s cold. Remember, if cold symptoms are not bothering your child, which means he or she can play normally, eat well, sleep well, then no medicine or home remedies are needed.

When should I call a doctor?

The FDA recommends contacting a doctor if you notice your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Not alert when awake
  • Trouble breathing not made better by cleaning out nose
  • Wheezing
  • Breathing is much faster than normal
  • Trouble swallowing and new onset drooling
  • Coughing that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • Fever over 102° F
  • Not eating or drinking
  • Your child’s symptoms are getting worse

Prepared by Anh Le PharmD Candidate 2020