Why You Should Skip Cold Medicine for Kids

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Neha Sheth, MD

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. But before you reach for the cold medicines, consider this: There’s no evidence that they actually help kids younger than age 6, and there are potential risks.

No Clear Benefit

For a study published in the medical journal BMJ, researchers reviewed previous studies that looked at the effectiveness of different cold remedies. What they found was that over-the-counter cold medicines, such as decongestants and products containing antihistamines, don’t actually improve symptoms.

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

What You Can Do

So what’s a parent with a coughing kid to do? For starters, know that cold symptoms typically clear up within seven to 10 days.

In the study, researchers found that saline nose drops and vapor rub are safe and can help with congestion -- though the rub can cause a rash.

“For babies and young children, bulb suction used along with saline nose drops can help clear mucus," says Neha Sheth, MD, of UH Rainbow Northeast Pediatrics. "A cool mist humidifier or vaporizer placed in a child’s room may also provide comfort.

For children older than age 1, natural remedies, such as honey, are soothing and help with a cough, she says.

"If a medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen is needed to treat your child’s fever, be sure to give it at appropriate intervals and check to see whether the fever is coming down on its own before redosing a medication," Dr. Sheth says. "Most children won’t need to see a health care provider unless their symptoms become serious.”

Dr. Sheth advises to contact your pediatrician if your child:

  • Has trouble breathing
  • Complains of ear pain
  • Is sleeping much more than usual
  • Has a cough that doesn’t improve after one week
  • Has a fever lasting more than three days

“Remember that colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not an effective method of treatment as they only fight bacterial infections," Dr. Sheth says. "Plus, taking antibiotics for a cold may make it harder for your child to fight bacterial infections in the future.”

Related links

Need to find a pediatrician that your child will love? Visit UHRainbow.org/Pediatrics to find a pediatric provider in your neighborhood.  

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