When your child is sick with a cold and a cough, you probably want to treat the symptoms and help him or her feel better fast. But before you turn to any over-the-counter medication, it's critical that you check with your pediatrician. According to the latest FDA guidelines, over-the-counter cold and cough medicines are never safe to use in children under two years of age—and may pose a serious risk to children for older children as well.

The Risks are Real

The problem with children and cold medicine is that there are a host of serious side effects that can occur, particularly in infants and toddlers.  Further, these treatments often don't even work in children that are still very young. And when they do offer some relief in older kids, such as temporarily clearing a stuffy nose or quieting a cough, they don't actually cure these ailments or make them go away any faster. So the risk comes without much benefit anyway.

A Word of Warning

The manufacturers of children's cold and cough medicines recently withdrew cold and cough products from stores that were targeted to infants and toddlers and could put these littlest patients at risk. However, many parents may still have some of these recalled bottles of infant cold treatments in their bathroom medicine cabinets. This poses the danger that you could use these medicines by accident. Therefore, you should make sure to clean out all of your cabinets.

Natural Options Exist

Also keep in mind that while you need to steer clear of over-the-counter medicines for your young children, you don't have to let them suffer in the process. There are a variety of natural remedies that won't pose the risks of medicine side effects.

Some tried and true methods good for young kids include getting lots of rest, increasing fluids, using a cool mist humidifier, putting a few drops of saline in the nostrils, using a bulb syringe on babies to blow their nose to clear the mucus out, rubbing a dab of petroleum jelly beneath the nose and filling your bathroom with shower steam to help your congested child breathe. These easy techniques can help you and your child weather the next cold without too much distress.

Safety Matters

When you do need to administer any type of medication, such as a pain reliever that is safe for little ones or if your doctor does give you the go ahead to use cold medicine in an older child, the FDA offers the following advice when using over-the counter drugs:

  • Check the age range for any medications to be sure it is an appropriate choice for your child.
  • Read the label and determine the active ingredients contained.
  • Follow the dosing directions exactly, particularly concerning the correct dosage for your child.
  • Use the provided measuring device for accurate dispensing. (Don't guess or use a household spoon.)
  • Ensure that child-proof caps are tight.
  • Store medicine out of reach of your children.

Beware of Side Effects

You should also know the warning signs that your child could be having an adverse reaction to an over-the-counter medication. Warning signs include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Breathing problems
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures

If these or any other worrisome symptoms appear, always seek medical help immediately. And when it doubt about children and cold medicine, never guess. Be sure to take the time to get a professional opinion and prevent unnecessary dangers of side effects.


American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)


Kids Health/Nemours Foundation



US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)