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How to Safely Treat Kids' Colds

It’s two in the morning, and you hear your toddler coughing, restless from a cold. How do you help her?

Parents face this question often, because young children get lots of colds, sometimes as many as eight to 10 each year, and cold medicines aren’t the answer. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that over-the-counter cold medications not be used for children under age 4 because of the risk of serious and even life-threatening side effects.

“As a general rule, cough and cold medicines don’t work well in children less than 6 years of age anyhow,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lange, a pediatrician in East Providence, “so pediatricians often recommend only good old-fashioned relief for young patients with a cold.”

These safe, easy tactics can help your child until the cold runs its course:

  • Ease breathing by placing a cool-mist vaporizer in their room.
  • Use saline nose drops to “unstuff” the nose and get things flowing. Ask your doctor about the dosage.
  • Raise the head of the bed when sleeping to ease post-nasal drip. For example, put towels under the mattress (NOT in the crib).
  • Use regular children’s Tylenol or Motrin for pain and fever relief.
  • Drink lots of fluids, such as clear warm soup and water. (Popsicles work too!)

When to see the pediatrician

It’s also very important to know when a cold is not just a cold. For example, an infant 3 months or younger should be seen by a doctor at the first signs of illness. You should also take your child to the pediatrician if they have:

  • A fever of 102 or higher at any age that lasts longer than 24-48 hours
  • Signs of labored breathing, wheezing, or fast breathing
  • Not eating or drinking, with signs of dehydration
  • Ear pain
  • Excessive crankiness or sleepiness
  • A cough that lasts for more than two weeks

How to avoid a cold altogether

Dr. Lange says that the best way to cure a cold is to not get sick in the first place. Sounds easier said than done, right? However, Dr. Lange says that “teaching kids how to wash their hands properly after using the bathroom and playing, as well as learning to sneeze into their arm, goes a long way to fight the common cold.” Those are important rules for parents and caregivers to follow too.

Why all the concern about cough and cold medications for children?

It’s important to remember that over-the-counter cough and cold medications were never meant to be a “cure” for the common cold. They’re supposed to quickly relieve cold symptoms. However, these medications can cause side effects in young children that include convulsions, rapid heart rates, decreased levels of consciousness, and death. There is also no proof that over-the-counter medications ease cold symptoms in children under age 12.