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Should Your Child See a Doctor?

Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?



Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines can cause serious side effects in young children. The risks of using these medicines outweigh any benefits from reducing symptoms. Therefore, in October 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that OTC cough and cold medicines never be used in children under 4 years of age. From age 4 to 6, they should be used “only if recommended by your child’s doctor.” After age 6, the medicines are safe to use, but follow the dosage instructions on the package. Fortunately, you can easily treat coughs and colds in young children without these non-prescription medicines.

Home Remedies

A good home remedy is safe, inexpensive and as beneficial as OTC medicines. They are also found in nearly every home. Here is how you can treat your child’s symptoms with simple but effective home remedies instead of medicines.

  1. Runny Nose: Just suction it or blow it. And remember, when your child’s nose runs like a faucet, it’s getting rid of viruses.
    • Medicines: antihistamines (such as Benadryl) do not help the average cold. However, they are useful and approved if the runny nose is due to nasal allergies (hay fever).
  2. Blocked Nose: Use nasal washes.
    • Use saline nose spray or drops to loosen up the dried mucus, followed by blowing or suctioning the nose. If not available, warm water will work fine.
    • Instill 2–3 drops in each nostril. Do one side at a time. Then suction or blow. Teens can just splash warm water into the nose. Repeat nasal washes until the return is clear.
    • Do nasal washes whenever your child can't breathe through the nose. For infants on a bottle or breast, use nose drops before feedings.
    • Saline nose drops and sprays are available in all pharmacies without a prescription. To make your own, add 1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) of table salt to 1 cup (8 ounces or 240 ml) of warm tap water.
    • Sticky, stubborn mucus: remove with a wet cotton swab.
    • Medicines: there is no medicine that can remove dried mucus or pus from the nose.
  3. Coughing: Use homemade cough medicines.
    • Age 3 months to 1 year: Give warm clear fluids (e.g., water or apple juice). Dosage: 1–3 teaspoons (5–15 ml) four times per day when coughing. Avoid honey because it can cause infantile botulism. Under 3 months, see your child’s doctor.
    • Age 1 year and older: Use honey, 1/2 to 1 tsp (2 to 5 ml), as needed. It thins the secretions and loosens the cough. (If not available, can use corn syrup.) Recent research (12/2007) has shown that honey is better than drugstore cough syrups at reducing the frequency and the severity of nighttime coughing.
    • Age 6 years and older: Use cough drops to coat the irritated throat. (If not available, can use hard candy.)
    • Coughing spasms: Expose to warm mist from a shower.
  4. Fluids: Help your child drink plenty of fluids. Staying well hydrated thins the body’s secretions, making it easier to cough and blow the nose.
  5. Humidity: If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Moist air keeps the nasal mucus from drying up and lubricates the airway. Running a warm shower for a while can also help humidify the air.

Treatment Is Not Always Needed:

  • If symptoms aren’t bothering your child, they don’t need medicine or home remedies. Many children with a cough or nasal congestion are happy, play normally and sleep peacefully.
  • Only treat symptoms if they cause discomfort, interrupt sleep or really bother your child (such as a hacking cough).
  • Since fevers are beneficial, only treat them if they slow your child down or cause some discomfort. That doesn’t usually occur until 102° F (39° C) or higher. Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin or Advil) can be safely used in these instances to treat fever or pain. (See dosage tables for indications and age limitations).


If treatment is needed for coughs and colds, home remedies may work better than medicines.


This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Last Revised: 10/20/2010 10:31:31 PM

Copyright 1994-2011 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

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