Let’s face it:  it stinks when your child gets sick.  He doesn’t eat well or sleep well.  Her  ears, throat, and head may hurt.  It’s natural for a parent to try to give something to relieve the symptoms.

A new, national poll reveals that many parents give their children under four years old multi-symptom cough and cold medicines (44%), cough medicines (42%), and decongestants (25%).  All this without any evidence acknowledging the efficacy or safety or these products, according to Karen Rowan:

Doctors have known since at least the 1990s that cough and cold medicines are unlikely to help children, and since the mid-2000s, studies have shown that these medications could actually be harmful, said Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, which reported the findings.

Kids can experience drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, breathing problems and seizures after taking these medicines, Davis said. While only a small number of children experience such side effects, the medicines aren’t effective in treating cold symptoms even for kids who don’t suffer such side effects, he said.


Over-the-counter cold and cough medications taste nasty.  It’s well-known that they don’t do anything to relieve symptoms in children.  They can be dangerous, especially for children under the age of two.

Things parents can do to help the symptoms of a viral, upper respiratory infection (remembering that antibiotics, with their own potentially dreadful side effects, don’t work either):

  • Drink lots of fluids.  Water, juice with vitamin C, warm tea or hot chocolate, a milk-shake or smoothie.  How much?  Assuming they are eating at least a little bit throughout the day, try: 


— 0-2 years old:  Their usual, daily intake.  Call your pediatrician if your child is taking significantly less than they normally do.

— 2-6 years old:  2-6 ounces per hour (younger children may resist).

— 6-8 years old:  6-8 ounces per hour.

— 8-12 years old:  8-12 ounces per hour.

— 12+ years old:  12 ounces per hour.

  • Mist helps sometimes.  Cool mist from a humidifier (makes a nice baby shower gift) or steam from a hot shower (your child sitting calmly on your lap or in a chair, NOT in the shower).  
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or Acetominophen (Tylenol) to help relieve fever, pain, or simply take the edge off an illness, at appropriate doses.


Parents should call if they are concerned with the severity of symptoms.  Parents should also be aware of their child’s immunization status and make sure that their shots are up-to-date.

I tried — exactly one time, despite of my wife’s reluctance, about 18 years ago — to give my son a cold medicine.  It stayed in him for about 5 seconds before purple splatter marks appeared on my face and shirt and on his carpet and walls.  I like purple, but this wasn’t pretty!