Why You Should Skip Cold Medicine for Young Kids

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Runny nose

Cough. Sniffle. Sneeze. If you have young kids, this is likely the symphony you’ll hear throughout the season. Fact is, children catch as many as six to eight colds per year.

Before you reach for cold medicines, consider this: There’s no evidence cold medicines help kids younger than age 6, and there are potential risks.

No Clear Benefit

A review published in the medical journal BMJ evaluated the effectiveness of different cold remedies. What the authors found was that over-the-counter cold medicines, such as decongestants and products containing antihistamines, don’t actually improve cold symptoms in children under 12.

What’s more, they carry potential side effects, such as drowsiness and upset stomach, as well as more serious ones, like rapid heart rate, seizures and even death.

What You Can Do

So what’s a parent of a sniffling kid to do? For starters, know that cold symptoms typically clear up within seven to 10 days. It’s also important to understand that the symptoms of COVID-19 in children can look just like a common cold, so it is always a good idea to get them tested.

In the BMJ study, researchers found that saline nose drops and vapor rub are safe and can help with nasal congestion -- though the vapor rub can irritate skin.

“For babies and young children, suction used along with nasal saline drops can help clear mucus," says UH Rainbow pediatrician Lauren Beene, MD of Suburban Pediatrics. “Nasal aspirators such as the NoseFrida can be particularly helpful.”

“For children older than age 1, natural remedies such as honey may be soothing and help with a mild cough,” she says. “However, babies under age 12 months should never be given honey.”

If acetaminophen or ibuprofen are used to treat your child’s fever, be sure to give the correct dose and in appropriate intervals, Dr. Beene says. “If you are unsure of a safe and adequate dose, you can always call your pediatrician for help.”

Dr. Beene advises to see your pediatrician if your child:

  • Has trouble breathing –labored or rapid breathing, wheezing or making a high pitched noise when breathing in
  • Complains of ear pain or is not sleeping well due to suspected ear pain
  • Is sleeping much more than usual
  • Crying inconsolably
  • Is not drinking well or not keeping fluids down
  • Has cough or cold symptoms that don’t improve after one week
  • Has a fever lasting more than three days, fever that does not improve with fever-reducing medicine, or is under the age of 3 months and has a fever for any duration of time

“Remember that colds are caused by viruses and not bacteria, so antibiotics are not an effective treatment," Dr. Beene says. "Taking antibiotics for a cold may make it harder for your child to fight bacterial infections in the future, so we only use them when there is a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection or pneumonia.”

Related Links

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital has the region’s largest coordinated network of pediatric primary care providers, committed to delivering the very best care to children of all ages. Find out more about our pediatric practices and find a provider near you.

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