The Dangers of Cold Medications for Young Children

Now that cold medications aren’t recommended for young children, how should parents treat a child’s cold?

The common cold is called common for a good reason. In fact, it turns out that cold viruses are so common, most school-aged and adolescent children get an average of three to five colds, or upper respiratory infections, each year. And those same sniffles and sneezes hit preschoolers at well over double the rate, as pediatrician Dr. Paul Theissen explains. “The average child in the first five years of life will get somewhere between 20 and 50 infections, so clearly the body needs to cope with a fair bit of infection. Only a small percentage of those are bacterial where antibiotics are actually required.”

While acetaminophen medication such as Tylenol may provide some relief for a child fighting a cold, Dr. Theissen says it’s a different story with over-the-counter cold medications. “There is no evidence that across-the-counter cold remedies actually benefit children less than five years of age. There are several well-controlled studies where there has been no difference shown between children given medication and those who have not.”  Studies have also shown that these cold medications contaiining antihistamines, decongestants, and cough suppressants can be dangerous in young children under six, and they are no longer recommended in either Canada or the US.

Pediatrician Dr. William Feldman adds that the other downside of having cough and cold medicines in a home is that they can taste good to children and that in itself can be dangerous. “Children can get into them and take a whole bunch of it, much more than they should have. If you overdose on it, you can have rather nasty side effects serious enough to warrant a visit to a poison control center of the hospital to have the stomach pumped, or to swallow some nasty stuff to get rid of the cough medicine, explains Dr. Feldman. So even if you have adult cold medications around the house ensure that they are locked away and out of reach of children.

But what about for the child over six years of age? Dr. Feldman says, “If you have older children, some of the studies would suggest that it helps some kids. But as it does cause some side effects you have to ask if it’s worth having. ” In fact, when it comes down to it, the best way to treat a cold is still the old-fashioned way “by ensuring an adequate intake of fluids and giving some Tylenol for headaches or fever”, concludes Dr. Theissen.


Adapted from The Parent Report Radio Show. Any advice or information contained herein should never be a substitute for professional and/or medical advice, diagnosis and treatment. For more information please review Terms of Service.

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