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Is over-the-counter cold medicine safe for kids?


Many adults don’t hesitate to pick up over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medications to ward off unpleasant symptoms like fever, headaches, congestion and sore throat. However, it’s important to remember that while these medications may help you, they are not meant for small children.

“Most OTC cold medications that are commonly used in adults have never actually been studied in pediatric patients,” says a general pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center. “Available literature suggests that they are not effective for the treatment of the common cold and may have unintended side effects, so they are generally not recommended particularly for children under six years old.”

It can be very frustrating for parents to have few options available when their child isn’t feeling well, especially since most children get six to eight colds each year. But there are things you can do to help ease your child’s discomfort without OTC medications.

Dr. Arvidson-Guzman suggests the following for the treatment of the common cold:

  • Humidified air
  • Nasal saline drops and suctioning if tolerated
  • Plenty of fluids to ensure adequate hydration
  • For children over the age of one, honey can be helpful to soothe a sore throat and cough

What to consider if choosing a different remedy

“If parents do choose to use OTC cold medications, it is important to check the ingredients,” Dr. Arvidson-Guzman says. Many of these medications contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and it can be easy to accidentally give too much if parents are also dosing these medications separately for fever or discomfort.”

Vicks VapoRub is a commonly used OTC remedy but should not be used in children age two and under or who are otherwise at risk of ingesting the product, because it contains camphor which can cause seizures. Alternative treatments like herbal remedies are not regulated by the FDA, and therefore very few studies support the efficacy and the safety of their use. Parents should be aware of the lack of evidence behind their use if they opt to use herbal treatments for colds.