Are over-the-counter cold and cough remedies truly effective? How to treat a cold in children without using cough suppressants becomes a critical question as existing evidence points in the other direction. It suggests that over-the-counter cold and cough medicines are largely ineffectual in warding off germs and alleviating symptoms like congestion, runny noses, and coughs. Extensive research reveals that babies and toddlers administered with cold and cough medications don’t exhibit fewer symptoms or recover any quicker than those not given any.
“Most babies and kids with colds will start feeling better in less than five days, whether or not they take medicine,” says Dennis Kuo, M.D., a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine pediatrician. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that children under the age of four should not take cough and cold drugs due to the risk of adverse reactions.
In the following article, find out why it’s not a good idea to give your kid an over-the-counter cold or cough medicine, along with some safe alternatives.
What are Over-the-Counter Cough Medicines?
Most OTC cold and cough remedies can be classified into one of four broad groups:
- Decongestants: Sinus congestion can be alleviated with decongestants, but some of them have undesirable side effects, including rapid heartbeat, agitation, nausea, and trembling.
- Antihistamines: Ari Brown, M.D., pediatrician and author of Baby 411 and Toddler 411 argues that antihistamines are intended to stop runny noses but really treat allergy symptoms, not cold viruses. While antihistamines are sedating, new studies demonstrate that they do not improve sleep for children with colds. Hyperactivity, sleepiness, dry mouth, and even hallucinations have been reported as potential negative reactions.
- Cough suppressants: Cough suppressants are medications that are taken to lessen the frequency and severity of coughing fits. However, they might have undesirable side effects such as drowsiness, agitation, dizziness, and even vomiting.
- Cough expectorants: Cough expectorants are medications that help loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches are possible adverse effects, albeit less common than other cold and cough drugs.
- Many companies have voluntarily withdrawn infant cough and cold medicines. Never give medicines meant for older children to a baby or toddler, even if there are still versions for children above the age of 2.
Why Are Medicines for Coughs and Colds Dangerous?
Studies have shown that even when taken as prescribed, many drugs are ineffective and may have serious side effects. Even if you give your child the recommended dosage based on their weight, there is still a risk of adverse effects, as each child has a unique metabolism, as Dr. Shu explains. Symptoms might range from being sick to having hallucinations, seizures, or eating too much or too little.
Furthermore, even if you follow the correct dosing instructions for each medication, your child can accidentally overdose on multiple medications, such as cough syrup and cough and cold drops. This is because many of these drugs contain overlapping ingredients (combinations of decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants, and expectorants, for example).
Can I give my teen over-the-counter drugs for a cold or the flu? The answer is not yet known because the FDA is presently studying their effects on children under the age of 11. Some experts believe it’s not worth the risk, even when there’s no proof they assist in relieving symptoms, because older kids may have fewer negative effects. Your best bet is a humidifier at night, saline drops, plenty of fluids (especially chicken noodle soup for feeding), and patience. If you’re going to experiment with medication, read the label thoroughly to protect yourself from unintended consequences.
Child-Friendly Cough Syrups
According to Dr. Brown, “it’s understandable that parents would try anything” to make their child feel better and sleep through the night. To paraphrase, “I, too, have spent more than my fair share of nights with a sick kid sleeping on my shoulder.” There is no evidence that medications are beneficial, and there is ample evidence that they pose risks.
Saline Drops: A Quick Fix for Congestion
Saline nasal drops work because they encourage drainage of nasal mucus. You’ll need a bulb syringe until your child is old enough to blow her nose (typically between the ages of 2 and 6).
Using an eye dropper, drip one or two drops of saline solution into each of your child’s nostrils while his or her head is sitting backward in your lap. To release air from the bulb, squeeze it. Stick the end up your kid’s nose. Stop squeezing, and the mucus should start coming in.
This can be done up to four times a day but is especially effective before bedtime for relieving congestion and promoting restful sleep. Do this just before you feed your breastfed or bottle-fed baby. Dr. Kuo explains that this is because “babies breathe through their noses while eating,” which makes it easier and more comfortable for them to eat.
Get Some Fluids in You!
It works because if your kid is drinking enough, the mucus in his or her nose and throat will thin out and allow for easier breathing. In addition, children with fevers lose fluids and may become dehydrated more quickly, so they must continue to receive adequate hydration.
What to Do: Only breast milk or formula should be given to infants under 6 months of age. “Offer clear fluids such as Pedialyte (or breast milk if you’re breastfeeding) every hour or so to babies under 2,” recommends Kuo. For older children, use diluted fruit juice, Gatorade, or flat Coke in a sippy cup; these fluids are absorbed more efficiently than water. Dosage Limits? Most likely not. According to Kuo, if a child has had too much to drink, their natural reaction is to deny more.
Add a Humidifier to Your Bedtime Routine
The Reason It’s Effective: If your child has trouble sleeping because of a persistent cough or sore throat, consider installing a cool-mist humidifier in the nursery or your child’s room.
What You Should Do: Alternate daily water changes with filter cleanings to keep bacteria at bay. Also, keep young children away from hot-water humidifiers since they present a burn danger if they are knocked over.
Cool That Temp
The Reason It’s Effective: You may have heard that fevers are usually just an indication that your child is fighting off a cold and are, therefore, harmless. However, drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) can bring the temperature down within an hour, relieving your baby’s irritability, restlessness, and aches caused by the fever.
Do not give medicine to a baby younger than 3 months old unless you have discussed doing so with a pediatrician. They’ll want Baby to come in, most likely. Babies three months of age and up can take acetaminophen, and infants six months of age and up can take ibuprofen. Your pediatrician can recommend a dosage based on your baby’s weight.
When to Seek Medical Attention
- Unless your child has a very high fever for his age, you probably don’t need to call the doctor straight away.
- If your infant’s rectal temperature is 100.4 degrees F or greater, he or she is younger than 3 months old.
- Rectal temperature of 101 degrees or greater in a child aged 3 to 6 months.
- Your child’s rectal temperature is 103 degrees or greater, and he or she is older than 6 months.
Any of the following symptoms need a call to the pediatrician:
- Your baby is dehydrated if they haven’t had a wet diaper in six hours, has a dry mouth, or cries with few or no tears.
- Even after five days, cold symptoms do not begin to improve. (This may be a sign of something else, such as bronchitis, sinusitis, or pneumonia).
- There isn’t a temperature, but your child is quite fussy and weary.
- Your child appears to be having difficulty breathing.
- Your kid is having problems breathing if they refuse to drink.
Meaningful articles you might like: Kid’s Cough Remedies That Work At Home, How to Determine if Your Cough is Caused by the Coronavirus, What a Wheezing Cough in Infants Means