Help for a Child with a Cold

It starts with a sneeze and a runny nose. From your child's symptoms, you think you're dealing with a cold. You want to help your child feel better, but giving them over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines may not be the best choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises not using them for children younger than age 4. From ages 4 to 6, these medicines should only be used if your child's healthcare provider recommends using them. Several studies show that cold and cough products taken by mouth don't work in children younger than 6 years. These medicines also may have serious side effects.

A lot of products also have a mix of ingredients meant to treat more than one symptom. These may include symptoms your child does not have. This also increases the risk that your child may overdose on one of the ingredients if you are giving them more than one medicine.

Ask your child's healthcare provider what they advise for different symptoms. Do this before your child gets a cold.

Here are some common cold symptoms and what ingredients to look for on labels if your child's provider advises medicine. 

Fever and pain

Typical colds don't cause more than a slight fever in kids. It's OK to let a slight fever run its course if your child is taking liquids and acting normally. In fact, fever may help your child's natural immune system fight off the infection sooner. Only 2 fever or pain medicines are available for children: acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Ask your child's provider about using these medicines. Others are available by prescription. Both help aches and ease fevers. Some multi-ingredient cold medicines contain one or the other of these ingredients. So read labels carefully so you won't give your child extra medicine that may not be needed.

Ibuprofen can be given to children ages 6 months and older.

Never give aspirin to infants, children, or teens. This is because of the risk of developing a serious condition called Reye syndrome. This is a rare but possibly fatal disease that can cause liver and brain damage.

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever over 100.4°F (38°C).

Stuffy nose and sneezing

If your child has a runny nose, use a bulb syringe to gently suction out the mucus. Or have your child blow their nose. Antihistamines work best if the runny nose is caused by allergies instead of the common cold. 

For a blocked nose, saltwater (saline) spray or drops may help. They dilute the mucus. This makes it easier for the child to blow it out or for you to suction it out. There are no medicines that can remove mucus from the nose. You can buy saline drops and spray at the pharmacy. Or you can make your own by mixing ½ teaspoon of non-iodized salt in 8 ounces of warm water. Use sterile, distilled, or previously boiled water. For babies, use the drops before feeding. Older babies and children may use the drops or spray whenever their nose is blocked. Talk with your child's healthcare provider first before giving your child over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays.

Coughing

For babies younger than 1 year who are coughing, it's enough to keep them well hydrated and comfortable. Ask your child's healthcare provider if your child should have extra water or warm fluids. For children older than 1 year, honey may be more helpful than any OTC cough medicine and is much safer. For children 1 to 5 years, give ½ teaspoon of honey. For children ages 6 to 11 years, give 1 teaspoon of honey as needed. Don't give honey to babies younger than 1 year. They are at risk of getting a disease called infantile botulism.  

Feeling better without medicine

There isn't enough scientific proof to back claims about vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc for cold relief. But the following suggestions may make your child more comfortable:

  • Liquids. Give your child plenty of water or other liquids to drink.

  • Cough drops. Lemon and peppermint drops can help a scratchy throat. Cough drops should only be given to older children who can handle hard candies without a risk of choking.

  • Rest. If your child seems tired, let them relax.

  • Steam. Steam treatment can be helpful. Use cool mist humidifiers at night. Warm humidifiers are not advised because they can burn a child. Mold can grow in any humidifier. So clean the equipment well between uses. Running a warm shower in the same room as your child may also ease symptoms if you don't have a humidifier. Always monitor your child near water.

Preventing colds

Children in daycare or school often spread colds to each other. Keep your child at home if they have a cold or if many children in the class have colds. 

Your child can help prevent colds by washing their hands often, by not touching their nose, mouth, or eyes, and by staying away from people with colds or upper respiratory infections. Alcohol-based hand gels can help prevent spreading a cold or other viral infection if soap and water are not available.