OTC Cough and Cold Medicines and My Child

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are drugs you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. Cough and cold medicines are one category of OTC medicines. They can help relieve common cold symptoms, such as cough, stuffy or runny nose, fever, body aches, and sore throat. You can buy these medicines at your local grocery or drug store. However, that doesn’t mean they are harmless. If they are taken the wrong way, they can make your child feel worse and can cause harm.

Talk to your family doctor if you have any questions about giving your child OTC cough or cold medicines.

Path to improved health

Children process medicines different than adults. For this reason, some OTC medicines are made just for children. Other medicines have specific dosing instructions for children. Do not give medicines made just for adults to your child. When used as directed, OTC cough and cold medicines usually are safe for children older than 4 years of age. Do not give them to children younger than 4 years of age unless your doctor says it’s okay.

Read the directions on the drug label to learn how much medicine to give your child and how often. Follow these tips to help make sure you give the medicine correctly.

  • Give only the amount recommended on the medicine’s label. (This is unless your doctor gives different instructions.) Do not assume that more medicine will work quicker or better. Giving your child too much medicine can be harmful.
  • Do not use a kitchen spoon to measure liquid medicine. Instead, use a measuring device meant for medicine, such as a spoon, syringe, or cup. It should be labeled with both teaspoons (tsp) and milliliters (mL).
  • An OTC label may say to give the medicine to your child “every 6 hours.” In general, this means the medicine can be taken 4 times a day. It does not mean you need to wake your child up during the night to take medicine.
  • Keep a list of OTC medicines you give your child. Include the time you gave the last dose. Bring this list with you if you take your child to the doctor.

Things to consider

OTC medicines cannot cure a cough or cold. They can only help relieve your child’s symptoms. They may or may not shorten the amount of time your child is sick.

There are other ways to help your child feel better without giving him or her medicine. The most important thing to do is to make sure your child gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids. If your child has a stuffy nose, saline nose drops can fight congestion. Placing a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room overnight also can help. (Make sure you keep the humidifier clean in order to prevent the growth of bacteria.) Or you can try turning your bathroom into a steam room. Close the door to the bathroom and turn the shower on hot. Then, sit outside the shower with your child for about 15 minutes.

When to see the doctor

Watch your child for signs of a reaction to OTC medicines. If you see something, stop giving the medicine and call your doctor right away. If you keep a medicine list for your child, bring it to your child’s appointment. Have the following information available for your doctor:

  • Name of the medicine
  • How much was given
  • When it was last given
  • What it was used to treat
  • The side effects or bad response
  • Names of other medicines your child took at the same time

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What OTC cough or cold medicine do you recommend for my child?
  • How much medicine should I give my child?
  • How often should I give my child this medicine?
  • How long will it take for the medicine to relieve symptoms?
  • What are the possible side effects?
  • Is there anything my child should avoid eating or doing while taking this medicine?
  • Are there any drug interactions with other medicines?
  • How do I know if my child is having a reaction?

Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.