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Help for a Child with a Cold

It starts with a sneeze and a runny nose. From your child's symptoms, you suspect you're dealing with a cold. You want to help your child feel better, but choosing among countless over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines can be daunting, especially since The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against using them for children younger than 2 years. Several studies show that cold and cough products don't work in children younger than 6 years and can have potentially serious side effects.

A lot of products contain a mix of ingredients meant to treat more than one symptom, including symptoms your child may not have.

Ask your pediatrician what he or she recommends for different symptoms, and do it before your child gets a cold.

Here are some common cold symptoms and what ingredients to look for on labels.

Fever and pain

Typical colds do not cause more than a slight fever in kids. It's OK to let a slight fever run its course if your child is taking liquids and acting well. Only two fever or pain medications are available for children: acetaminophen and ibuprofen; others are available by prescription. Doctors prefer acetaminophen to ibuprofen, but both help aches and ease fevers. Some multi-ingredient cold medicines contain one or the other of these ingredients, so read labels carefully to avoid over medicating. Don't give aspirin to infants, children or teens because of the risk for Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause liver and brain damage. If a child's temperature is high, he or she may have something other than a cold.

Stuffy nose and sneezing

Only one oral decongestant is currently available OTC: pseudoephedrine. Phenylephrine and phenylpropanolamine have been removed from the market because of dangerous side effects. Pseudoephedrine relieves stuffiness and will help dry up a runny nose. Use pseudoephedrine sparingly.

Only a few antihistamines are available without prescription. These include loratadine, chlorpheniramine, brompheniramine, dexbrompheniramine, diphenhydramine, triprolidine and clemastine. Most antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine, ease runny noses and may reduce sneezing. Antihistamines may also cause drowsiness and irritability in children. Antihistamines are best for allergies but are not generally recommended for upper respiratory infections.


Two types of medications are used for coughs: expectorants and antitussives. Expectorants increase the amount and flow of mucus so that it can be coughed up more easily. Antitussives actively suppress a cough, usually through a pathway in the central nervous system.

Guaifenesin, an expectorant, thins and loosens mucus. To be most effective, it should be taken with water or other fluids. Guaifenesin is the only commonly available expectorant in OTC cough medications.

Dextromethorphan, an antitussive, suppresses coughs. Dextromethorphan is the only commonly available antitussive agent available in OTC cold and cough preparations.

Keep in mind that many OTC cough and cold products contain either guaifenesin or dextromethorphan or both. Store brands can be just as effective as brand-name products and at a lower cost. What's important is choosing a medication with the appropriate ingredients. Talk to your child's doctor if you have questions about what product to buy.

To make your child less susceptible to colds, make sure he stays active, eats nutritious foods and has ways to deal with stress Those steps can help boost the immune system.

Your child can help prevent colds with good hand-washing techniques, by not touching his nose or eyes and by avoiding people with colds or upper respiratory infections. Alcohol-based hand gels can help prevent spreading a cold or other viral infection.

Feeling better without medicine

There isn't enough scientific proof to back claims of cold-symptom relief for some alternative treatments, such as vitamin C, echinacea and zinc. But the following nonmedicinal suggestions may make your child more comfy:

  • Liquids. Give your child plenty of water and juice.

  • Cough drops. Lemon and peppermint drops can help a scratchy throat. Cough drops should only be given to older children who can handle hard candies without choking risk.

  • Saline nasal spray. This can help a sore, stuffy nose.

  • Bed rest. If your child seems tired, let him relax.

  • Steam. Steam treatment can be helpful. Parents can use cool mist humidifiers at night; warm humidifiers are not recommended because they may harbor mold.