Why Cough Medicine Isn't Safe For Toddlers

There’s only so much a parent can do to prevent their little one from coming down with one of the many winter bugs going around. On top of that, these germs are easily spread in places like schools and daycare. The common cold season is here again and, yes, a lot of kids are going to get sick. And probably more than once. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers reportedly get about seven to eight colds a year. Dealing with the sneezing, coughing, and congestion is tough, especially when there are a lot of questions and concerns about whether it’s safe for toddlers to take cold medicine. In short, a lot of people say they shouldn’t have it, mostly because the active drugs in cold medicines marketed for kids are not studied on them. Instead they're studied on adults and altered for a child's consumption.

“Many cough and cold remedies have not been well studied in children, and there are potential dangers to your child’s heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure and level of consciousness if too much medication is consumed,” Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and kid’s health expert in Toronto, wrote in an article for the The Huffington Post last year. “These medicines can potentially lead to seizures, coma or even death in some kids. In addition, having the medicines in the house increases the risk of accidental consumption.”

Kulik recommends against using any cough or cold medicines for children younger than 6 years old. For kids older than 6 years old, Kulik says to follow the instructions on the box and use the enclosed measuring dropper or dosing cup if you choose to use some kind of children’s cough and cold medicine.

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According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), children under 2 years old should not be given any kind of cough and cold products that contain a decongestant or antihistamine. What about children over 2 years old? The FDA says “parents and caregivers should use caution.” This is because many over-the-counter cough and cold products contain multiple ingredients which can lead to accidental overdosing by, for example, using two different brands of medicine at the same time, but not realizing they contain the same ingredients.

But some experts say that threshold should be much older and parents shouldn't give cold or cough medicine to kids under 12.

Essentially, it's up to each parent. They know their child best. But there just isn't enough research to answer this question with a simple yes or no, or an exact age guideline. For toddlers, however, it seems that most experts would agree that their tiny growing bodies shouldn't have it.

Instead, try these doctor and FDA-recommended alternative treatments:

  • Use a saline spray or a cool mist humidifier to clear nasal congestion.
  • Drinking plenty of liquids will help children stay hydrated.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to reduce fever, aches and pains, but make sure to read the labels carefully and check with your doctor if you have any questions.
  • Kids older than 1 year old can take honey to help with coughs and help with sleep.

If any risk is too high, it's best to err on the side of caution and steer clear of cough and cold medicines when your toddler is sick.