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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 over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines may not be the answer. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against using them for children younger than 4 years. From age 4 to 6, these medicines should only be used if your child's doctor tells you to. Several studies show that cold and cough products don't work in young children and can have potentially serious side effects.

A lot of products also contain a mix of ingredients meant to treat more than one symptom. These may include symptoms your child does not have. This also increases the risk that your child may overdose on one ingredient if you are giving your child more than one medicine.

Ask your child's doctor 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 if your child's doctor recommends medicine. 

Fever and pain

Typical colds don't 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. In fact, fever may help your child's natural immune system fight off the infection sooner. Only 2 fever or pain medicines are available for children: acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Others are available by prescription. Both help aches and ease fevers. Some multi-ingredient cold medicines contain one or the other of these ingredients, so read labels carefully so you won't give extra medicine that may not be needed.

Don't ever give aspirin to infants, children, or teens because of the risk for Reye syndrome. This is a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause liver and brain damage.

Call your doctor right away if your child is less than 3 months of age and has a fever over 100.4°F (38°C).

Stuffy nose and sneezing

If your child has a runny nose, use a bulb syringe to gently suction out the mucus. Or have your child blow his or her nose. Antihistamines only work if the runny nose is caused by allergies. Antihistamines don't work well for the common cold. 

For a blocked nose, saltwater (saline) spray or drops may help. They dilute the mucous. This makes it easier for the child to blow it out or for you to suction it out. There are no medicines that can remove mucus from the nose. You can buy saline drops and spray at the drugstore. Or you can make your own by mixing ½ teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm tap water. For babies, use the drops before feeding. Older babies and children may use the drops or spray whenever their nose is blocked. 

Coughing

For babies under 1 year, it is enough to keep them well hydrated and comfortable. Ask your child's doctor if your child should have extra water or warm fluids. For children over 1 year, honey may be more helpful than any OTC cough medicine and is much safer. Give your child ½ to 1 teaspoon of honey as needed. Don't give honey to babies under 1 year because they are at risk of getting a disease called infantile botulism.  

Children in daycare or school commonly spread colds from one to another. Keep your child at home if he or she has a cold or if many children in the class have colds. 

Your child can help prevent colds by washing his or her hands often, by not touching his or her nose or eyes, and by staying away from 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 about vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc for cold relief. But the following suggestions may make your child more comfy:

  • Liquids. Give your child plenty of water or other liquids to drink.

  • 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 a risk of choking.

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

  • Steam. Steam treatment can be helpful. Use cool mist humidifiers at night. Warm humidifiers are not recommended because they can burn a child. Mold can grow in any humidifier, so be sure to clean the equipment well between uses. Running a warm shower in the same room as your child may also ease symptoms if you don't have a humidifier. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Brown, Kim, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD, FACP
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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