Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy for your child without a prescription from your doctor. OTC cough and cold medicines can help relieve common cold symptoms such as cough, stuffy or runny nose, fever, body aches, and sore throat. Even though you can buy these medicines at your local grocery or drug store, that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. If they are taken the wrong way, they can make your child feel worse and can even be harmful.
Are over-the-counter cough and cold medicines safe for children?
When used as directed, over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines usually are safe for children older than 4 years of age and may help to relieve some of your child’s symptoms. You should not give these medicines to children younger than 4 years of age unless your doctor says it’s ok.
Your child’s body processes medicine differently than your adult body. For this reason, some OTC medicines are made just for children or have specific dosing instructions for children. Do not give medicines made just for adults to your child. Talk to your family doctor if you have any questions about giving your child OTC cough or cold medicines.
Can OTC medicines cure my child’s cough or cold?
No, OTC cough and cold medicines can not cure a cough or a cold and they do not shorten the amount of time your child will be sick. They can only help relieve your child’s symptoms.
What questions should I ask before I give my child an OTC medicine?
If a doctor, nurse or pharmacist recommends you give your child an OTC medicine, be sure to ask these questions:
- Why are you recommending this medicine?
- How much medicine should I give my child?
- How often should I give my child this medicine?
- What effect should this medicine have on my child’s symptoms?
- Will this medicine cause any side effects?
- Is there anything my child should avoid eating or doing while taking this medicine?
How can I be sure I’m giving my child the right amount of medicine?
Read the directions on the drug label to learn how much medicine to give your child and how often to give it to him or her. If you have any questions about how much medicine you should give your child, call your family doctor or pharmacist.
Follow these tips to help make sure you give your child the right amount of medicine:
- Give only the amount recommended on the medicine’s label. Don’t assume that more medicine will work better or quicker. Giving your child too much medicine can be dangerous.
- Don’t use an ordinary kitchen spoon to measure liquid medicine. Instead, ask your pharmacist for a measuring device (such as a spoon made for measuring medicine, or a syringe or a cup) that is labeled with both teaspoons (tsp) and milliliters (mL).
- An OTC label may say to give the medicine to your child “every 6 hours.” This generally means the medicine can be taken 4 times a day. It doesn’t usually mean you need to wake your child up during the night to take medicine.
- Keep a record (1-page PDF; About PDFs) of which OTC medicines you are giving to your child and when you last gave your child a dose. If you take your child to the doctor, take this list with you.
An appropriate medicine measuring device should be labeled with both teaspoons (tsp) and milliliters (mL).
An appropriate liquid-medicine measuring device should be labeled with both teaspoons (tsp) and milliliters (mL).
What should I do if my child has a bad response to an OTC cough or cold medicine?
If your child has a bad response to any OTC medicine, stop giving him or her the medicine and tell your doctor right away. If you keep a medicine log (1-page PDF; About PDFs) for your child, bring it along to your child’s appointment. You will need important information about what happened, including:
- Name of the medicine
- How much was given
- What it was used to treat
- The side effects or bad response
- Names of other medicines your child was taking at the same time
What else can I do to relieve my child’s cough and cold symptoms?
There are a number of ways to help your child feel better without giving him or her medicine. The most important thing to do is make sure your child gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids. If your child has a stuffy nose, saline nose drops can be a safe, nonirritating way to fight congestion. Placing a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room overnight can also help relieve a stuffy nose, congestion or cough. (Just be sure to keep the humidifier clean in order to prevent the growth of bacteria.) Or, turn your bathroom into a steam room by closing the door and turning the shower on hot. Sit outside the shower with your child for about 15 minutes.
Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff