– Modern medical science has not yet found a cure for the common cold or the flu. Fortunately, many over-the-counter (OTC) medications are designed specifically to address symptoms like cough, congestion, runny nose, fever, sore throat, and aches that go along with viral illness. Some products contain a single active ingredient while others contain several active ingredients and are designed to relieve a whole constellation of symptoms. Choosing a specific product comes down to which symptoms need to be treated and the age of your child since some of these products are not recommended for young children. At drugstore.com, we carry a wide range of cough, cold, and flu medications to make your sick child feel better.
read more about children's cold medicines »
There are two ways to address a cough. The first is to suppress the cough reflex, which is controlled by the brain. The second method involves reducing the irritant that is causing the cough, which usually means reducing mucus. There are cough medications that can do one, the other, or both.
Dextromethorphan is the most common cough suppressant (sometimes called an antitussive) used in OTC products. Dextromethorphan should not be used in children under the age of four or in combination with certain medication since it may not be safe. If your child is taking other medications, talk with his or her pediatrician first before using this product.
Camphor and menthol are two other common cough suppressants. These medications are rubbed onto the chest or under the nose. Their vapors, which have a mild anesthetic effect, help to ease cough. They have the added benefit of relieving stuffiness as well and are generally safe for children over the age of 2 if used as directed.
Guaifenesin is the most common mucus thinning agent (also called an expectorant) found in OTC medications. It can be taken as a pill or a liquid. It is often found in combination with other medications, such as pain relievers, decongestants, antihistamines, and dextromethorphan. Guaifenesin should not be given to children under the age of four.
How to Relieve My Child’s Stuffy Nose
With a doctor’s approval, nasal congestion can be addressed with oral medications or with medications sprayed directly into the nose. In some cases, a saline spray is enough to relieve congestion.
Phenylephrine is the most common active ingredient in OTC decongestant medications. It has replaced pseudoephedrine in recent years.
Pseudoephedrine is more effective than phenylephrine, but can only be purchased by asking for it at the pharmacy.
Phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine can both cause insomnia, restlessness, and a rapid heartbeat. Pseudoephedrine is more likely to cause all of these side effects. A rapid heartbeat should be evaluated by a physician. These medicines are not recommended for children under the age of four.
Oxymetolazone, tramazoline, and xylometazoline, are sprayed directly into the nose rather than being taken by mouth. They are highly effective, but can only be used for three days, at most. They can worsen stuffiness if taken for more than two or three days in a row. Check the product label before using these medicines. They may not be safe for young children.
Saline (salt water) nose sprays can be used to relieve congestion as well. Saline must be sterile, to prevent infection, so it must be purchased from a reliable source. Saline is considered safe for any age group.
Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers For Children
Muscle aches may be debilitating, but a fever can be dangerous. High temperature can lead to dehydration and even neurological damage. Reducing fever is one of the most important roles of cough, cold, and flu medications.
Acetaminophen which is the active ingredient in Tylenol is one of the most commonly recommended fever reducers on the market. It is also a mild pain reliever. Acetaminophen is generally safe and effective if you follow the directions on the package. Acetaminophen has been associated with liver damage when taken in higher than indicated doses. Many products contain acetaminophen as one of their active ingredients, so care must be taken when combining products. Choose the right dose for your child based on your child’s weight and/or age. If you are unsure of how much to give, ask your doctor for advice regarding dosing for your child. Acetaminophen should not be given to infants under 3 months of age.
NSAIDs, such as aspirin, naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve), and ibuprofen (the active ingredient in Advil), are effective pain relievers and fever reducers. They are generally considered more effective at relieving pain than acetaminophen and are approximately equal at reducing fever. Read all product labels carefully since these medications may not be safe for young children or those with certain illnesses. Speak to your child’s pediatrician before using aspirin. Children and teenagers who have or are recovering from chicken pox, flu symptoms, or flu should not use aspirin. It can cause a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome. NSAIDs can cause stomach upset and liver damage, though the latter is rare. Many products contain an NSAID in combination with other ingredients.
What Can I Do For a Child’s Sore Throat?
Be sure to see a pediatrician to determine the cause of your child’s sore throat. Ask for recommendations as to which products are appropriate. Options for relieving a sore throat range from honey-infused lozenges to anesthetic sprays. NSAIDs and acetaminophen, both discussed above, can be effective at relieving the pain associated with a sore throat. Topical products, such as benzocaine, eucalyptus oil, menthol, peppermint oil, and other anesthetics, can be found in sprays and lozenges.
Warnings About Children’s Cold Medicines
Always follow the recommendations on the packaging. Be sure to use the dosing device (e.g. dropper, dosing cup, or dosing spoon) that comes with your child’s medicine and do not give more medicine than directed. It is not recommended that cough, cold, and flu medications be given to children under four years of age unless under the guidance of a physician. Critically, care must be taken when combining products so that an overdose of active ingredients (e.g. acetaminophen) is avoided. Remember to store all medications in safe places and out of your child’s reach.