Children's Hospital Colorado

Coughs: Meds or Home Remedies?

Urgent or Emergency Care?

If you believe your child needs immediate attention and you have concerns for a life-threatening emergency, call 911. Not sure what counts as urgent and what's an emergency when your child is sick or injured? When it can't wait, know where to take your kids.

Help Me Decide

Barton D. Schmitt, M.D., FAAP

Medicines (OTC)

Over-the-Counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines can cause side effects. These side effects can be serious in young children. The risks of using these medicines outweigh any benefits. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked at this issue in children. They recommended these medicines never be used in young children. After age 6, the medicines are safe to use, if you follow the package instructions. But, it's easy to treat coughs and colds without these medicines.

Home Remedies:

A good home remedy is safe, cheap, and as helpful as OTC medicines. They are also found in nearly every home. Here are some simple but helpful home treatments.

1. Runny Nose: Just suction it or blow it. When your child's nose runs like a faucet, it's getting rid of viruses. Allergy medicines (such as Benadryl) do not help the average cold. They are useful only if your child has nasal allergies (hay fever).

2. Blocked Nose: Use nasal saline.

  • Use saline (salt water) nose drops or spray to loosen up the dried mucus. If you don't have saline, you can use a few drops of water. Use distilled water, bottled water or boiled tap water.
  • Step 1: Put 3 drops in each nostril. If age under 1 year old, use 1 drop.
  • Step 2: Blow (or suction) each nostril separately, while closing off the other nostril. Then do other side.
  • Step 3: Repeat nose drops and blowing (or suctioning) until the discharge is clear.
  • How Often: Do nasal saline rinses when your child can't breathe through the nose. Limit: If under 1 year old, no more than 4 times per day or before every feeding.
  • Saline nose drops or spray can be bought in any drugstore. No prescription is needed.
  • Saline nose drops can also be made at home. Use ½ teaspoon (2 ml) of table salt. Stir the salt into 1 cup (8 ounces or 240 ml) of warm water. Use bottled water or boiled water to make saline nose drops.
  • Reason for nose drops: Suction or blowing alone can't remove dried or sticky mucus. Also, babies can't nurse or drink from a bottle unless the nose is open.
  • Other option: use a warm shower to loosen mucus. Breathe in the moist air, then blow (or suction) each nostril.
  • For young children, can also use a wet cotton swab to remove sticky mucus.
  • Medicines. There are no drugs that can remove dried mucus from the nose.

3. Coughing: Use homemade cough medicines.

  • Age 3 months to 1 year. Give warm clear fluids (such as apple juice or lemonade). Dose: 1-3 teaspoons (5-15 ml) four times per day when coughing. Under 3 months, see your child's doctor. Caution: Do not use honey until 1 year old.
  • Age 1 year and older. Use Honey ½ to 1 teaspoon (2 to 5 ml) as needed. It thins the secretions and loosens the cough. If you don't have honey, you can use corn syrup. Research shows that honey works better than cough syrups to reduce nighttime coughing.
  • Age 6 years and older. Use Cough Drops to decrease the tickle in the throat. If you don't have any, you can use hard candy.
  • Coughing fits. The warm mist from a shower can help.

4. Fluids: Help your child drink lots of fluids. Staying well hydrated thins the body's secretions. That makes it easier to cough and blow the nose.

5. Humidity: If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Moist air keeps the nose and airway from drying out. Run a warm shower for a while to help put moisture in the air.

Treatment is Not Always Needed:

  • If symptoms aren't bothering your child, they don't need medicine or any treatment. Many children with a cough or cold are happy, play fine and sleep well.
  • Only treat symptoms if they cause discomfort or wake your child up. Treat a cough if it's hacking and really bothers your child.
  • Fevers are helpful. Only treat them if they slow your child down or cause some discomfort. That does not occur until 102° F (39° C) or higher. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) can be given. Use to treat higher fever or pain. See Dose tables.

Summary. If coughs or colds need treatment, home remedies may work better than medicines.

Disclaimer

The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.

  • Not a Substitute - The information and materials in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker should not be used as a substitute for the care and knowledge that your physician can provide to you.
  • Supplement - The information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker are meant to supplement the information that you obtain from your physician. If there is a disagreement between the information presented herein and what your physician has told you -- it is more likely that your physician is correct. He or she has the benefit of knowing your child's medical problems.
  • Limitations - You should recognize that the information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker have the following limitations, in comparison to being examined by your own physician:
    • You can have a conversation with your child's doctor.
    • Your child's doctor can perform a physical examination and any necessary tests.
    • Your child could have an underlying medical problem that requires a physician to detect.
    • If your child is taking medications, they could influence how he experiences various symptoms.

If you think that your child is having a medical emergency, call 911 or the number for the local emergency ambulance service NOW!

And when in doubt, call your child's doctor NOW or go to the closest emergency department.

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