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Treating coughs and colds in children

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Many over-the-counter cough and cold remedies are no longer sold for use in children under the age of 6.[8] These include cough and cold medicines containing the following ingredients:

  • Brompheniramine, chlorphenamine, diphenhydramine, doxylamine, promethazine, and triprolidine (antihistamines)

  • Dextromethorphan and pholcodine (cough suppressants)

  • Guaifenesin and ipecacuanha (expectorants to help you cough up phlegm)

  • Phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, oxymetazoline, and xylometazoline (decongestants to unblock nasal passages).

These medicines are still available for children ages 6 to 12, but they are sold only in pharmacies and should be used with care (see below).

In the US, a review of the safety of cough and cold medicines for young children found several worrying cases where children had been seriously harmed. These cases were mainly when children had been accidentally given a dose that was too high.[9]

There have been fewer reports of these medicines harming children in the UK. But, after reviewing the research, the body that monitors the safety of medicines in the UK (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, or MHRA) decided to limit the medicines that can be used for young children. The MHRA concluded that there is no evidence that these medicines work, and they can cause serious harms and side effects, such as allergic reactions and sleep problems.

Bear in mind that most colds and coughs clear up on their own within a few days. Drugs won’t cure the cough or cold. They will only help make the symptoms milder.

The MHRA has recommended some treatments that are suitable for young children with coughs and colds.[8] But you still need to take great care not to give more than the recommended dose.

To lower a child's temperature, you can use paracetamol or ibuprofen. For treating coughs, you can use a simple cough syrup, such as glycerol, honey, or lemon. Nasal drops of saline (sterile salt water) can be used to help unblock babies' noses if they are having trouble feeding.

You can also help relieve a child's blocked-up nose using vapour rubs and inhaled decongestants that you put on children's clothing, such as menthol. Inhaled decongestants used as rubs or on pillows are not advised for children under 3 months.[10]

Parents and carers of children age 6 and older should:

  • Read the label on any medicine you give your child. Check the active ingredients section of the label and the correct dose for your child's age

  • Be very careful if you give more than one medicine to a child. If you use two medicines with the same active ingredients, your child could get too much

  • Use only the measuring spoons or cups that come with the medicine.

Call a pharmacist, GP, or other health care professional if you have any questions about using cough or cold medicines in children.


For references related to Common cold click here.
Last Updated: October 23, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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