medicine safety As parents, we want our kids to feel better as quickly as possible when they’re sick. However, when it comes to giving your kids cough and cold medicine, it’s important to proceed with caution.

“Remember that children are not small adults, especially when it comes to medication,” says Jeanette Trella, PharmD, BCPPS, Poison Control Center Director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “Their rapidly growing minds and bodies have unique needs that can only be safely met by medicine that is meant for their age group. Many medicines used by adults are not safe for children. This is especially important to know right now in face of some medication shortages, as parents may be looking for alternatives to ease their child’s symptoms.”

In addition to being potentially harmful, most cough and cold medications have not been proven to be effective in kids. “In many cases, the risk of the medicine outweighs the potential benefits, and should be avoided for young kids,” explains Trella. 

Alternatives to cough and cold medication: Start here when treating young children

Colds typically last a few days to a week. The safest and often most effective treatments for a child’s cold are rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Some time-tested home remedies really do work to relieve a child’s discomfort. Here is a list of common cold symptoms and potential remedies you can consider before considering medication:

  • Fevers (defined as a body temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher) are our body’s way to help fight off germs. It isn’t necessary to treat a fever with medication unless it’s causing discomfort for your child. Also, make sure you know when to call the doctor by following these guidelines.
  • Coughs are the body’s way of clearing mucus out of the airways. They don’t typically need to be suppressed with medicine unless they are interfering with sleep and daily activities. Use extra caution if your child has asthma — the approach to treating coughs is different for them. Talk to your doctor for advice and before giving any medications.
  • Sore throats are common with viral illnesses and can be very uncomfortable. A warm drink or a spoonful of honey (only for children over age 1) can soothe a sore throat and may reduce “tickly” coughs. An age-old favorite, gargling with warm salt water, works well too if your child is old enough!
  • Congestion can be challenging for all ages! A young child with a stuffy nose can be helped with saline drops or sprays to loosen the mucus, followed by clearing with a bulb syringe. A cool mist vaporizer is also helpful. It can help loosen congestion in the chest and nose.

Check medicine labels closely

If you’ve tried to alleviate your child’s illness without medication and feel medication is necessary, remember to move forward carefully. Always read the medicine label closely to make sure the right person is receiving the right dose of the right medication.


  • Verify the age range. Always read the medication label carefully to see if it is intended for use in children of your child’s age. Some medications should not be given to young children.
  • Know the dosage. The medication label should also be reviewed to see what dose needs to be given to your child based on their age and weight. Medicines that have been deemed safe for children generally have lower, more precise weight- or age-based dosing. Be aware of dosing frequency and, if possible, keep a log of when a medication dose is given to avoid double dosing.
  • Check the details. It’s important to read the fine print on medication labels. Many cough and cold products have multiple ingredients. Be sure you aren’t giving multiple products with the same active ingredients.

When in doubt, follow the five “R’s” of medication safety!

Protect your child from medication errors

“Hundreds of children experience scary effects from exposures of cough and cold medicine every year,” says Trella. “In most cases, the exposures are caused by children finding the medicine and taking it themselves. Some are caused by a parent or caregiver misreading the dosage instructions.”

Here are some strategies to keep your child safe from accidental exposures and medication errors:

  • Use child-resistant packaging properly by closing the lid tightly after use. However, remember that this packaging is child “resistant,” not child “proof.”
  • Use slow-flow adapters for liquid medications to decrease the amount that a child may ingest if they remove the cap, and also to make it easier to fill oral dosing syringes (no more pouring medication out of bottle to measure).
  • Don’t use household teaspoons to measure the dose. Use the measuring device that comes with the product or an oral dosing syringe.
  • Double check the unit of measure. Doses are often specified in both teaspoons and milliliters, so be sure to use the corresponding number with the appropriate unit on the measuring device.
  • Keep the light on when giving or taking medicine to make sure you can clearly read the instructions, and check the dosage every time.
  • Never refer to medicine as candy when trying to convince your child it will taste good, and never leave a child unattended with a bottle of medicine.

How to handle an accidental exposure or incorrect use of medicine

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if your child overdoses on any cough or cold medication, and keep the medicine bottle handy so you can provide the poison information specialist with the exact ingredients. The Poison Control Center is staffed 24/7 by nurses and pharmacists who are experts in poison information, with physician toxicologist back-up. Calls to the Poison Control Center are always free, and no question is too small to ask. It is a wonderful resource to have saved in your phone!

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