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Most Young Children With a Cough or Cold Don't Need Medicines

Have a Baby or Young Child With a Cold? Most Don't Need Medicines

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What can parents do when their babies and young children have a cough or cold? It depends on the child’s age.

Although most colds in children don’t have serious complications, they can cause worry to caregivers, and are among the top reasons for visiting a doctor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t recommend over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines for children younger than 2. For infants and children younger than 2, those medicines may have serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.

The FDA also warns that children younger than 12 shouldn’t take codeine products to treat pain or cough because of the risk of developing potentially life-threatening breathing problems. The FDA recommends against use of codeine in youths ages 12 through 18 who are obese or have conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea (blocked airflow during sleep) or severe lung disease. These risk factors can increase their chances of developing serious breathing problems when taking these medications.

Codeine products are available by prescription and, in some states, over-the-counter (OTC). Codeine is often combined with other cold medicines for treatment of cough.

What should you do? Here are some tips on how to safely treat your child’s cough and cold.

Relieving Cold and Cough Symptoms

There’s no cure for the common cold (a viral infection that cannot be treated with antibiotics), says FDA pediatrician Amy M. Taylor, M.D., M.H.S.

“A cold is self-limited, and most patients will get better on their own in a week or two without needing medications. For older children, some OTC medicines can help relieve the symptoms—but won’t change the natural course of the cold or make it go away faster,” Taylor says.

Coughs are a normal symptom of a cold and can serve a purpose. “Coughs help the body clear the mucus out of the airway and protect the lungs; so you don’t want to suppress all coughs,” Taylor says.

Non-drug treatments for coughs include drinking plenty of fluids, especially warm drinks to soothe the throat.

When to Call a Doctor

Not every sniffle or cough merits a trip to the doctor’s office. When in doubt, parents should call their health care provider. “Call your pediatrician at the first sign of illness whenever a baby 3 months or younger is sick,” Taylor advises.

For all children, call a doctor if you see any of these symptoms:

  • A fever in an infant 2 months or younger.
  • A fever of 102 degrees or higher at any age.
  • Signs of labored breathing, including nostrils widening with each breath, wheezing, fast breathing, the ribs showing with each breath.
  • Blue lips.
  • Not eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration.
  • Ear pain.
  • Excessive crankiness or sleepiness.
  • If the cough lasts for more than three weeks.
  • If the child is getting worse.

Those symptoms can signal that your child has something more serious than a cold.

“You have to know your child,” Taylor says. “With small infants, fever is a major concern, and you need medical advice. If you are worried about your child’s symptoms, at any age, call your pediatrician for advice.”

What to Do About Fever and Other Symptoms Associated with a Cold

Fever helps the body fight off an infection and does not always need to be treated. But if your child is uncomfortable because of fever or other symptoms of a cold, there are alternatives to cough and cold medicine to help them feel more comfortable. They include:

  • A clean cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in a small area near the child’s bed may help moisten the air and decrease the drying of the nasal passages and throat.
  • For infants with a stuffy nose, use saline or saltwater drops/spray to moisten the nasal passages and loosen the mucus. Then clean the nose with a bulb syringe.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce fever, aches and pains. Take care to use the correct dose.

Giving the Right Dose of Medicine

“It’s easy to make errors with liquid medications. It’s often difficult for people to correctly measure liquid medications because they don’t understand what a milliliter is or may be confused about the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon,” Taylor says.

How can you be sure to give the correct dose? Follow the directions on the“Drug Facts” label. The FDA encourages drug manufacturers to provide a dosing instrument, such as a syringe or a cup, marked with the correct measurements. Use them—and not household spoons—to measure medication.

“If you have questions or need advice, ask the pharmacist,” Taylor adds. “Pharmacists can tell you which dosing instrument to use, how much medication to give and how often based on the Drug Facts label.”

In the United States, adults have on average about three colds per year, and children have them even more often. You might be tempted to give your children pain relievers, decongestants and other medications for a cold. But often it’s best to fight this common childhood illness with rest and care. 

This article appears on the FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

Published: July 18, 2017

Published: November 17, 2014

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Page Last Updated: 07/18/2017
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