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What medicines are safe to give a child when they have a cold?

What medicines are safe to give my child when they have a cold? How can I help my child when they have a cold? There are many medications available on the market advertising their use for “cough and cold”, but not all products should be used in children. As a parent I always want to help my child feel better as soon as possible when she is sick. But what medicines work for a cold and which could be unsafe for children to have?

What is the common cold?

The common cold is an illness often caused by a virus. Unlike bacteria, viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. Generally, a common cold means a sore throat, dry or wet cough, having a runny nose, or slight fever (>38⁰C).

What should I give my child for cough and cold?

  • Fluid intake is very important when a child becomes sick. Keeping children hydrated helps their body fight the cold. Dehydration can be very serious in infants and young children.
  • Humidifying home air may help with congestion.
  • Saline nasal nose drops or saline nasal sprays can help with nasal congestion if the nasal mucous is thick
  • Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are common medications found in children’s over the counter products. These two medications treat for pain and fever. For a short term treatment and at appropriate doses, Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen are usually well tolerated in children. In a recent Cochrane review, the use of Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen did not significantly reduce cold symptoms or duration, but improved discomfort and pain.

What medications should NOT be used for my child when they have a cold?

  • Aspirin should be avoided in children less that 18 years old. Aspirin use in children has been associated with Reye’s Syndrome, which is a serious condition that has been associated with swelling in the brain and liver.
  • Ibuprofen typically should not be used in infants under 6 months of age

Cough and cold products are generally to be avoided in children under 6 years old

The Canadian Pediatric Society actually recommends that parents avoid giving any cough and cold products to children who are under 6 years of age.

The use of cough and cold products by children has been linked to increased emergency department visits, medication overdoses, and in some cases – death.

Listed ingredients to avoid in the cough and cold category for children less than 6 years include :

1.    Decongestants (e.g. phenylephrine/ pseudoephedrine)

2.    Expectorants (e.g. guaifenesin)

3.    Antihistamines (e.g. diphenhydramine, pheniramine) when using solely for cough and cold purposes.

4.    Cough suppressants (e.g. dextromethorphan)

A sick child is always concerning – and managing your child’s illness can be exhausting. But it is important to remember the different needs for their bodies; just because a treatment works for you doesn’t necessarily mean it is always safe for your children.

When in doubt, always seek medical attention

When delivering a medication to your child, ask a healthcare professional if you want to double check about a dosage or whether the medication is safe. Liquid medications always need to be measured using a syringe or small medicine cup. This ensures the dose is not too high.  Remember that until children are about 12 years old, most medicine needs to be dosed based on the child’s current weight – not on their age.

Medications that require a prescription should never be shared among family members and more importantly should never be shared with children.

Learn More from Dr. Mom

This article was co-written by Sean Starman, a University of Alberta 2018 graduate of Bachelor of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Edited by Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP.


Goldman, R.D.; Canadian Pediatric Society, Drug Therapy and Hazardous Substances Committee (2011). Treating cough and cold: Guidance for caregivers of children and youth. Pediatric Child Health 16(9):564-6

Thirion, Daniel J.G.(2016). Chapter 24: Viral Rhinitis, Influenza, Rhinosinusitis and Pharyngitis (pp 250-268). Compendium of Therapeutics for Minor Ailments Second Edition.  Ottawa ON. Canadian Pharmacists’ Association.

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