Help for a Child with a Cold

It starts with a sneeze and a runny nose. From your child's symptoms, you suspect you're dealing with a cold. You want to help your child feel better, but over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines may not be the answer, since The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against using them for children younger than 4 years. From age 4 to 6, these medicines should only be used if advised by your child's doctor. Several studies show that cold and cough products don't work in young children and can have potentially serious side effects.

In addition, a lot of products contain a mix of ingredients meant to treat more than one symptom, including symptoms your child may not have.

Ask your pediatrician what he or she recommends for different symptoms, and do it before your child gets a cold.

Here are some common cold symptoms and what ingredients to look for on labels if your pediatrician recommends medication. 

Fever and pain

Typical colds do not cause more than a slight fever in kids. It's OK to let a slight fever run its course if your child is taking liquids and acting well. In fact, fever may help your child's natural immune system fight off the infection sooner. Only two fever or pain medications are available for children: acetaminophen and ibuprofen; others are available by prescription. Both help aches and ease fevers. Some multi-ingredient cold medicines contain one or the other of these ingredients, so read labels carefully to avoid giving extra medication that may not be needed.

Don't ever give aspirin to infants, children or teens because of the risk for Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause liver and brain damage.

Call your doctor right away if your child is less than 3 months of age and has a fever. 

Stuffy nose and sneezing

If your child has a runny nose, it is enough to either use a bulb syringe to gently suction out the mucus or to have your child blow his or her nose. Antihistamines are only effective if the runny nose is caused by allergies. Antihistamines are not an effective treatment for the common cold. 

For a blocked nose, saline spray or drops may be useful. They dilute the mucous, which then makes it easier for the child to blow it out or for you to suction it out. There are no medicines that can remove mucus from the nose. Saline drops and spray are available at the pharmacy, or you may make your own by mixing ½ teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm tap water. For small babies, use the drops before feeding. Older babies and children may have the drops or spray whenever their nose is blocked. 


For babies under 1, it is enough to keep them well hydrated and comfortable. Ask your child's doctor if extra water or warm fluids are safe to use. For children over 1 year, honey has been shown to be more helpful than any over-the-counter cough medicine and is much safer. Give your child ½ to 1 teaspoon as needed. Do NOT give honey to babies under 1 year of age because they are at risk of catching a disease known as infantile botulism.  

To make your child less susceptible to colds, make sure he stays active, eats nutritious foods, and has ways to deal with stress Those steps can help boost the immune system.

Your child can help prevent colds with good hand-washing techniques, by not touching his nose or eyes and by avoiding people with colds or upper respiratory infections. Alcohol-based hand gels can help prevent spreading a cold or other viral infection.

Feeling better without medicine

There isn't enough scientific proof to back claims of cold-symptom relief for some alternative treatments, such as vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc. But the following nonmedicinal suggestions may make your child more comfy:

  • Liquids. Give your child plenty of water or other liquids to drink.

  • Cough drops. Lemon and peppermint drops can help a scratchy throat. Cough drops should only be given to older children who can handle hard candies without choking risk.

  • Bed rest. If your child seems tired, let him relax.

  • Steam. Steam treatment can be helpful. Parents can use cool mist humidifiers at night; warm humidifiers are not recommended because they can burn a child. Any humidifier can harbor mold, so be sure to clean the equipment thoroughly between uses. Running a warm shower in the same room as your child may also ease symptoms if a humidifier isn't available.