Cough & cold medicines in children

Coughs and colds are common in children, but what medicines can be given?

Cough and cold medicines are designed to help reduce the symptoms of the common cold such as runny nose and cough – they do not cure the infection. The ingredients in these medications can cause serious side effects in young children. To avoid harm:

  • over-the-counter cough and cold preparations are not recommended for children under 6 years of age
  • only those labelled as safe for children should be given to children 6 years of age and older. 

Simple pain relievers such as paracetamol (commonly known as 'Pamol or Panadol') can be used for the treatment of pain or fever.

See your doctor if your child has a sore throat, is not breathing easily, has a cough that has lasted longer than 4 weeks, or you are in any other way concerned they are not getting better. 

What ingredients are in cold and cough medicines?

Cold and cough medicines often contain one or more ingredients that are designed to ease the symptoms of a cold such as runny nose and cough. Common types of ingredients include:

Can cold and cough medicines be used in children?

Medsafe, the unit of the Ministry of Health that is responsible for the regulation of medicines in New Zealand has assessed the safety and effectiveness of cough and cold medicines in children. They have advised that the safe use of cold and cough medicines in children depends on the child's age.

Children aged 6 years or younger

Medsafe recommends that parents and carers should no longer use over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines in children aged under 6 years. This is because:

  • Children and adults are affected by the common cold in different ways. Medicines that have been made for adults do not always work in the same way for children.
  • There is no evidence that cough and cold medicines work in children.
  • These medicines have the risk of serious side effects such as abnormal heart rate, allergic reactions, and reduced consciousness in children.
  • Also, there is the risk of accidental overdose. 
  • Therefore when given to children, cold and cough medicines may cause more harm than good.

Note: Paracetamol and ibuprofen are not classed as cough and cold medicines and can still be given to children.cough and cold preparations in children

Children between 6 and 12 years of age

For children aged between 6 and 12 years, these medicines can be used, as there is less risk of side-effects in older children. However, they will only be sold in pharmacies, with clearer advice on the packaging and from the pharmacist.

What treatments can be used for coughs and colds in children?

  • Simple pain relievers such as paracetamol (commonly known as 'Pamol or Panadol') can be used for the treatment of pain or fever.
  • Saline (salt water) nasal spray or nasal drops can be helpful for clearing blocked noses.  Using a few drops of salt water (saline) into the nose just before feeds is a popular option for treating a blocked nose in babies. Some people feel that this helps to clear the nose to make feeding easier. However, there is little scientific evidence as to how well this works. You can buy saline drops from pharmacies.
  • Alternatively a home-made salt water solution could be used: mix ¼ teaspoon salt with two cups of cooled, boiled water and administer using a small spray bottle, nasal dropper or syringe
  • Vapour rubs are commonly applied to the chest and back. However, there is little scientific evidence as to how well they work. Avoid application to the nostril area in small children, and they are not recommended for use in children aged less than three months.
  • Honey can act to soothe the throat and is suitable for children over the age of one year.
  • Encourage rest and give lots to drink.
  • If your child has a sore throat, see your doctor or nurse in case they need antibiotics or a throat swab.

Prevention

Help children stay healthy and fight off colds and other illnesses by:

  • Making sure your house is warm and dry.
  • Keeping your home Smokefree – breathing secondhand cigarette smoke increases the risk of asthma, chest infections, ear infections and many other health problems in children.
  • Dressing your children warmly and feeding them nourishing food.
  • Using good hygiene practices, such as washing hands & covering the mouth and nose with a tissue during coughs and sneezes.

Learn more

Use of cough and cold medicines in children — Updated advice Medsafe New Zealand, May 2013
Coughs and colds in children Patient Info, UK

Credits: Health Navigator. Last reviewed: 25 Jun 2015