How should I treat my child's cold?

Sheena L. Kamra, MD
The best thing you can do to treat your child's cold is to give them plenty of fluids. Antibiotics will not help a child with a cold. They are used to kill bacteria, and colds are caused by viruses. However, you can ease your child's pain or fussiness with over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If she is over age 1, a bit of honey can help soothe a cough. Humidified air can improve a stuffy nose and help your child breathe more easily. Over-the-counter decongestants or cough suppressants have not been proven to work in children. 
“Parents often feel helpless when their child is sick and turn to over-the-counter medications and antibiotics for a 'cure all,’” says Dennis Woo, MD, UCLA pediatrician. “I firmly believe that we tend to overmedicate our kids in hopes that it will make them feel better faster, but nothing makes the cold go away faster than rest and letting the cold cure itself.”

To alleviate cold symptoms:
  • Drink a lot of fluids.
  • Place a cool-mist humidifier in the room to increase air moisture.
  • Use a bulb syringe to suck out any excess mucus (for children under two years).
  • Sleep with head slightly elevated to improve nasal drainage.
  • Use saline drops in the nose to loosen mucus.
  • Use steam from a hot shower to help congestion.
  • Drink honey with tea (for children older than one year).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend any over-the-counter cold and cough remedies for children under age 6. These medicines won't help you get better faster, but some people find they help relieve symptoms and let you rest easier. Following are some general guidelines:
  • For pain or fever: Use acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin). Do not give aspirin to a child or teen. For people with asthma or a family history of asthma, many specialists suggest avoiding acetaminophen, as it can aggravate or promote asthma.
  • For a sore throat: Lozenges or cough drops may soothe a sore or dry throat. (But don't give a throat lozenge to children under 5 years old -- they can choke.) You can also try gargling with salt water.
  • For a stuffy or runny nose: Research shows that for adults, decongestants slightly improve congestion (stuffy nose). Decongestants have not been studied well in children. Some people find them helpful, but others find that the side effects outweigh the benefit. Antihistamines for runny nose have not been shown to help. Note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of cold medications (which may contain a decongestant or antihistamine) for children under age 4. If you decide to use a cold medication for your child over age 4, follow the label instructions.
  • For a cough: A cough can be a sign of asthma or other serious problems. For relief at home, you can try cough medicine, though studies show that most don't help. Rubbing Vicks VapoRub on the chest may help children ages 2 and older.
Call the doctor if any symptoms become severe or aren't improving in about 10 days.
Treat your child’s cold differently than your own when it comes to medication. Don't give over-the-counter (OTC) cold or cough products to a child under 4 years old, and use extreme caution when giving OTC drugs to kids up to age 11. If your child has a fever, use acetaminophen according to her doctor's instructions. Never give aspirin to a child under the age of 18 years—it can put her at risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a rare but possibly fatal condition.

Many of the same non-drug treatments that can help adults feel better are safe and effective for children. These include:
  • drinking plenty of fluids—at least 8 glasses a day
  • OTC saline nose drops
  • gargling with warm salt water
  • a cool-mist humidifier to keep nasal passages moist
  • warm baths or showers to relieve congestion
  • cough drops or hard candies to soothe a scratchy throat (but only for children over 3 years)
  • chicken soup
Talk to your child’s doctor if you have questions about treating her cold.

There are some things you can do for your child to make him feel better until the cold is gone:

• Give lots of cool, clear liquids so that he does not get dehydrated (dried out). Do not try to force your child to eat. It is normal to have less appetite with a cold.
• Give acetaminophen (Tylenol® or less costly store brand) if advised by your child’s doctor to control fever. Follow the directions on the box carefully or ask your child’s doctor how much medicine to give.

      - Do not give your child more than 5 doses of acetaminophen in a 24-hour period.

      - Do not give acetaminophen to babies less than 3 months of age without a doctor's order

• Keep him at home until the fever is gone.
• Treat your baby’s stuffy nose with salt-water drops and a bulb syringe.
• Antihistamines (a common medicine to treat colds and allergies) and cold medicines don’t seem to work as well for babies and children as for adults. These medicines will not make the cold go away. Use these medicines only as your child’s doctor suggests.
• Avoid cigarette smoke and odor around your child.
• Give cough medicine only if advised by your child’s doctor.

      - Coughing helps clear mucus from the chest and lungs.

      - Most children will not spit out the mucus but will swallow it into their stomachs. This is not a

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Since over 90 percent of respiratory infections are viruses, using antibiotics doesn't help. While you can't cure a cold, you can help relieve some of the symptoms by making sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids to replace some of the fluids lost during the immune response. You can also make him more comfortable by giving him the recommended dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain and fever reduction. But stay away from any over-the-counter decongestant drugs or cough medicines for children under two, or combination acetaminophen-decongestant or ibuprofen-decongestant medicines for children of any age. That's for a couple of reasons: One, because there are more episodes of overdosing by well-intentioned parents than we care to count, and sometimes with serious consequences. Two, because they can induce side effects, including respiratory symptoms that may make it harder for asthmatic babies and children to breathe. Try chicken soup if Junior can tolerate it: The ingredients seem to help activate fighter cells in the immune system to make secretions less tenacious, plus soup helps with hydration.
YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

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YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

There’s little doubt that parenting can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences you’ll ever have. But it can be plenty tough, too: Around the clock, you’re working to keep your...

Continue Learning about Colds in Children

Colds in Children

Colds in Children

The average child gets five to nine colds a year. While you can't cure a cold, you can help relieve symptoms by making sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines, cough suppre...

ssants and decongestants may mask some cold and cough symptoms, but there has never been good evidence that they work. Show children how to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer to help reduce cold germs.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.