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Help for Cough + Cold

Saturday, October 27, 2012


How can I get my child’s cough and cold symptoms better, especially now that over-the-counter medicines are no longer recommended for children?

The “common cold” or viral upper respiratory infection

This is the most common infection seen in infants and children (and adults for that matter).  Many normal infants and toddlers will have 6 to 12 colds in a year!  Older children may have 2 to 5 colds a year.  While colds usually are not serious, they cause a lot of runny nose, congestion,  and cough are very uncomfortable and annoying.  Symptoms can last 2 to 3 weeks.    Although there is no cure for the common cold, there are non-medical treatments that can provide significant relief without causing side effects.

Many infants and children will have loud, noisy breathing with colds simply because their nose is congested and clogged with secretions.  This type of noisy breathing can be easily relieved.  Teach older children to blow their noses.  Infants will need you to suction their noses with a bulb syringe.  You can use saline (salt water that is properly mixed to match the salt content of body fluids) in spray or drop form to loosen nasal secretions for easier blowing and suctioning.  Saline also makes the nose feel better by helping clear secretions and shrinking some of the swelling in the nose caused by the cold.  You can also run a humidifier in your children’s room to help them breath easier through their noses while they sleep.   Encourage your child to drink extra fluids as colds can cause mild dehydration.  While milk and formula are not harmful in infants and children with colds, they may be able to drink “clear” fluids better because of all the secretions they have from the cold.  For younger infants and toddlers, use Pedialyte or another brand of oral rehydration solution.  These products have electrolytes (like sodium and potassium) and glucose in the correct concentration to provide hydration while keeping the proper chemical balance in the body.

Cough is the part of a cold that is a little tougher to relieve  

To some extent, cough is necessary to get secretions out of the lungs.  Keeping the nose clear helps prevent post nasal drip back into the throat and will prevent some cough.  Older children can drink warm liquids or suck on cough drops to ease cough.

 Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers  include acetaminophen (like Tylenol and Tempra) and ibuprofen (like Motrin and Advil). (note- do not use aspirin in children under age 18 years).  These help relive sore throat, nasal irritation and fever associated with colds.   Call a doctor immediately for fever in a baby younger than eight weeks of age!

The other three categories of medicines available in OTC medicines are decongestants, cough relievers and antihistamines.  Unfortunately, none of these medicines cure the cold or help it go away faster.  They can also cause some significant side effects like anxiety, sleep problems, breathing problems and dry mouth.  They can even cause death if they are overdosed.   Studies have shown they are ineffective in treating symptoms of children under six years of age. (1)
Cold remedies come in a variety of different forms and brands.  If you use them in our older child,, it is important to read the labels so you treat only the symptoms your child has and you do not duplicate ingredients.  (1) American Academy of Pediatrics urges caution in use of over the counter cough and cold medicines. www.aap.org January 17, 2008.

The good news is that once your child has gotten through a viral illness, he will be immune to that particular virus for life!  The bad news is there are dozens of other viruses out there he can still get.  Many viruses, like influenza and RSV, change or “mutate” frequently so they can reinfect your child. While it is difficult or impossible to prevent them all, taking some simple precautions will help.


  • Keep your infant away from older children who are coughing or having runny nose as much as possible.  Don’t let these older children kiss or breath on the infant while they are sick and have them wash or sanitize their hands before touching the baby.  As a parent, you should wash or sanitize your own hands before touching your baby if anyone in your household is sick, or if you are in a public place.  This is because the main way viruses spread is by a sick person wiping their nose or coughing into their hands …..then touching a doorknob or other surface…then a well person touches that same doorknob or surface….then they touch their own face or mouth (or their baby’s face or mouth)….. and there the virus goes into the next person’s body!  Teach older children the habit of washing/sanitizing their hands before touching their mouths and noses. 
  • Get your child an annual flu vaccine in the fall before cold and flu season starts to help prevent influenza.  Some high risk infants (for example, those with prematurity, heart and lung problems) may get special monthly shots called “Synagis” during RSV season (October to March) to prevent RSV infection. 
  • Finally, don’t smoke inside your home or car and don’t let anyone else smoke in any area your baby or child lives and plays in.  Tobacco smoke is irritating and toxic to your child’s respiratory system.  They will get sick more often and stay sick longer if they are exposed to tobacco smoke.
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Dr. Vicki Roe is  a Pediatrician at Northpoint Pediatrics. She received her  under graduate degree from Purdue, and her MD degree from IU School of Medicine.  In her spare time she enjoys book collecting, genealogy, photography, sci fi and comic books.
Baby girl with pony tail in white