Family & Parenting

Are Cold Medications Harmful For Young Children?

Parents, this is an important read.

When your child gets a cold, you want to do everything possible to help banish the coughs, sniffles and sneezes. But common cold-busting strategies — like over-the-counter medications — may not be all that helpful.

In fact, new research published in the medical journal BMJ found decongestants should not be given to children under 6, and they should be given with caution in children under 12. The medical experts who published the review of cold remedies say not only is there no evidence decongestants are helpful when it comes to relieving kids’ cold symptoms, but it’s unclear whether the medications are even safe.

“In general, we now do not recommend cold medications to young children, as they are not very effective,” says Dr. Joel Warsh of Integrative Pediatrics and Medicine Studio City. Warsh, who was not involved with the study, says cold medications can cause diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, lethargy and headaches — additional symptoms you don’t want your little one to endure.

We turned to pediatricians to get their takes on the findings in this new medical research on cold medications, and also asked them about better ways to treat your child’s cold.

First, why do kids catch so many colds?

You’re not imagining it if it seems as though your kids are sick every other week.

Children have young immune systems and have not been exposed to a lot of cold viruses in their lifetimes, explains Dr. Jonathen Bartholomew, a pediatrician with Utah Valley Pediatrics.

“For this reason, they seem to ‘catch’ everything,” he explains. Young children, especially, may catch 10 to 12 colds or more a year.

“Each viral illness lasts about two weeks, so this means they may be sick up to 24 weeks out of the year,” Bartholomew says.

Children are more prone to catch illnesses if they spend time with large groups of other children at daycares or schools. Bartholemew notes, however, that good handwashing can help reduce the spread of illness.


What medications don’t work or are harmful to kids?

You should pass on the decongestants when you’re treating your child’s cold, say the pediatricians we interviewed and the medical researchers. While kids 6 and older may be able to take decongestants, it’s worth noting that there’s no clear evidence they actually work and it’s a good idea to consult with your pediatrician before going this route.

While it may be tempting to grab for medications promising “quick relief,” the researchers involved in the BMJ review go on to explain there is no evidence decongestants relieve stuffy or runny noses. Because there have not been trials involving children and the cold medications, it’s unclear whether decongestants are effective, according to the journal article.

Decongestants, or medicines containing an antihistamine, cause concerns because they are not proven to be effective and because they can cause adverse side effects in kids. These include drowsiness and upset stomach. The BMJ findings say that side effects are even more harmful for children under age 2, as they may include convulsions, rapid heart rates and death.

Other commonly used over-the-counter and home treatments, such as eucalyptus oil, vapor rubs or echinacea, are not proven to be effective treatments for kids. According to the researchers, though, they are not dangerous.


What’s the best way to treat kids’ colds?

So, how can you help your little ones feel better?

We hate to be bearers of bad news, but medical experts say you should skip the medications and let the cold run its course. While distressing, symptoms should clear up within a week to 10 days.

There are, however, a few safe ways to lessen your child’s cold symptoms.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that acetaminophen or ibuprofen can act as alternatives to cold medications. They help reduce fever, aches and pains.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is safe from infancy, explains Dr. Joseph Hershkop, a pediatrician with Utah Valley Pediatrics, and can typically be administered to babies starting at 2 months. Ibuprofen (Motrin), he says, can be given safely after babies are 6 months old.


He notes that in terms of medication for congestion, coughing and breaking up mucus, there are no great options for younger children.

“We generally recommend a humidifier to help break up mucus in younger children,” Hershkop says.

While saline nasal irrigations or drops can be used safely, they may not bring about much relief, according to the review in BMJ. For infants less than a year old, the FDA also recommends nasal suctioning with a bulb syringe, with or without saline nose drops.

You can sometimes use diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to dry up mucus, Hershkop says. He adds that you should ask your doctor for dosing instructions since amounts are weight-based in younger children.

“When I use it for that purpose with my kids, I usually do a lower dose and just once a day rather than multiple times a day,” Hershkop says. “Also, some kids go hyper on Benadryl so you may want to keep that in mind if it’s the first time using it, and you may not want to give it right before bedtime.”

The bottom line? It’s best to have a conversation with your pediatrician about how to treat your child’s cold and what can be done to relieve symptoms.