There is an ongoing debate about whether or not cough medicines for kids are safe. The over-the-counter medications prescribed for cough in children provide symptomatic relief against its symptoms. Cough is a symptom of the common cold caused by rhinoviruses. A few other causes of cough include parainfluenza virus infection (barking cough or croup), asthma, and allergies. Cough helps in expelling the excess mucus produced by the body in response to an infection and protecting the lungs. The cough can be productive, chesty, and with phlegm, or dry and without any phlegm (1) (2). However, antibiotics are meant to treat bacterial diseases and are ineffective against cough caused due to viral infections (1).
The below post discusses the types of cough medicines for kids, their use, side effects, and alternative medicines to manage the cough.
Safety Of Cough Medicines In Children
Coughs due to common cold may not need medicines, and children get better after one or two weeks. Keeping in mind the adverse effects of cough and cold medications, various countries’ governments and medical bodies have laid down instructions for their safe use among children.
- The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disapproves of the use of OTC or prescription medicines for cough and cold in children younger than two years. FDA restricts the use of products containing codeine or pholcodine for those younger than 18 years (1).
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend OTC cough medications for children younger than four years. The academy advises consulting a registered medical practitioner for the administration of cough medicines for children between four and six years.
- The Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) mandates labeling instructions saying not to use cough and cold medications in children younger than four years (3) (4).
- The Government of the UK approves the use of OTC cough and cold medicines only in children older than six years (5).
Cough Medications For Children
Cough often follows the common cold in children who have a sore throat, congestion, fever, runny nose, and body aches as well. Most of the medications for cough are available OTC and contain more than one ingredient to address multiple symptoms.
|Class of medication||Active Ingredients||Function||Brand names||Remarks|
|Cough Suppressant||Dextromethorphan||Reduces severity of dry cough||Delsym||Used for dry cough|
|Expectorant||Guaifenesin||Helps loosen phlegm or mucus so that it comes out easily||Little Remedies, Mucinex, Robitussin||For productive cough|
|Antihistamine||Chlorpheniramine, Brompheniramine, Diphenhydramine, Cetirizin||Relief from allergies||Benadryl, Dimetapp|
|May cause drowsiness|
Other medications available only on prescription from a registered medical practitioner include:
- Corticosteroids and nebulized adrenaline (administered via a mask) if your child is diagnosed with croup (8)
Side Effects Of Cough Medicines In Children
Most side effects of cough medicines in children are due to overdosing caused by using more than one OTC product that may contain overlapping ingredients. These adverse effects include (10):
- Increased or altered heart rate
- Allergic reactions
- Shallow breathing
Drowsiness or sleepiness is the most common side effect of OTC cough and cold medications. However, you should consult a pediatrician if it is very severe or any of the other side effects appear.
Precautions To Be Taken
It is best to consult a healthcare provider before treating your child with any OTC cough preparation, especially when they are already on any other medication. Below are some precautions you must follow when administering a cough remedy to the child (11) (12).
- Make sure you buy a cough preparation meant for children and not for adults. Adult medications may contain a higher dose of the medicine.
- Aspirin should not be given to children. It increases the risk of Reye’s syndrome, which causes inflammation in the liver and brain.
- Read all the instructions in the packet insert and go through the list of active ingredients in the product.
- Give the correct dose as mentioned in the packet insert or as directed by the physician. Use the calibrated dropper or graduated cup provided with the product instead of regular spoons.
- Avoid using more than one OTC cough remedy for your child. These often contain mixtures of ingredients, which may result in double-dosing.
- Consult a doctor if symptoms do not improve, become severe, or persist after two weeks.
- Keep all medications out of your child’s reach to avoid accidental overdosing.
Alternative Ways To Relieve Cough In Children
OTC medications should not be the first approach if your child has a cough and cold. These medications are incapable of altering the course of the viral infection, which gets resolved on their own in a week or two. Therefore, you may use several home remedies to ease the discomfort of your child (13).
- Ensure proper rest for the child. It helps in the healing process.
- Give your child plenty of fluids such as warm soups or juices, or plain water. Staying hydrated keeps the body fluids from thickening, making it easier to cough out.
- Honey can be given to children older than one year to loosen the mucus (a spoonful of honey in warm water). It eases nighttime coughing.
- Use saline (salt water) drops or sprays if the child has a stuffy nose.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room. It helps in reducing swelling in the nasal passages and keeping the mucus thin. Make sure to clean out and dry the humidifier to avoid any bacterial or fungal growth.
- A mix of menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus oil, such as found Vicks VapoRub, applied topically on chest and throat, soothes cough temporarily and may help children sleep well (14).
- Cough drops (throat lozenges or hard candy) may be given to reduce itchiness in the throat. It should be avoided in children under six years due to the risk of accidental choking.
- Do not expose your child to secondhand smoke.
If your child is not much bothered with the cough and can play and sleep, then cough medicines are not required. They should be used when the discomfort is keeping your child awake at night or hampering normal activities. OTC cough medications should be used carefully and preferably with a doctor’s consultation to avoid any complications and side effects.
- According to FDA, OTC medicines for cough and cold should not be used in children younger than two.
- Overdosing or overlapping cough drugs can cause drowsiness, restlessness, allergic reactions, seizures, and hallucinations, among other side effects.
- Home remedies such as humidifiers, adequate hydration, nasal saline sprays, and proper rest may help alleviate cough symptoms.
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- Vicks Vaporub childrens (camphor- synthetic, eucalyptus oil, and menthol ointment.