Drug Alert: Treat your child’s cold and cough, but skip the drugs

Consumer Reports News: October 23, 2008 11:22 AM

If you have a child under age 4, what are you supposed to do now that the makers of children's cough and cold medicines are warning parents not to use their products? Actually, all children under age 6 shouldn't be given these medicines. And these drugs should only be used with caution, if at all, for children up to the age of 12, according to our team of medical advisers.

During any given week in the U.S., parents are still doling out these ineffective products to millions of children. Clinical trials so far have shown no benefit to giving children cough and cold products, except to sedate them. At the same time, these drugs pose a high health risk. Particularly dangerous are combination cough and cold medicines (for example, Benadryl Allergy & Cold Fastmelt Children's or Tylenol Cold Multi-Symptom Children's), on which kids can more easily overdose.

Instead, you can do what moms and dads have been doing for generations—using good old home remedies like these:

  • Keep your child warm and dry in inclement weather, which can actually cut the chance of catching a cold in the first place.
  • Give your child hot chicken soup, which can help with his or her congestion and sore throat, plus lessen the feeling of being sick.
  • Ask your child to cough or sneeze into tissues, and dispose of them after using.
  • Dole out honey (one-half teaspoon to children ages 2 to 5, 1 teaspoon to children 6 to 11, and 2 teaspoons to those ages 12 to 18), or give your child hard (sugarless) candy to suck on to help reduce coughing.
  • Show your child how to gargle with warm, salty water, which can ease a painful throat.
  • Remind your child to wash his or her hands often, which can reduce the likelihood of transmitting infections.

Consumer Reports also recommends flu shots for children ages 6 months through 4 years, since this age group has the most flu-related complications, including pneumonia, than any other age group except adults over 65.

If you decide to give your child an over-the-counter cough and cold medicine, talk with your doctor or pharmacist first. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns parents that these drugs are only intended to treat the symptoms of a cold, and do not speed up a child's recovery. Always follow directions as to how to use the medicine, and do not give a child any medicine that is labeled for adults only. Finally, when pouring medicine for a child, use the measuring device that comes with the medication—not household teaspoons or other items, as they are often different sizes.

CR's take: Don't give cough and cold medications to children under the age of 6, and use only with extreme caution and restraint for children between the ages of 6 and 12. The risk of overdosing outweighs the purported benefit these medications offer.

Lisa Gill, producer and writer, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs

Visit our Children's Health Center, and read more about the vaccines your child needs (free). For more on remedies for the common cold, check out our Natural Medicine Ratings (subscriber's only). 

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