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Navigating your drugstore’s medicine aisle

According to the American Lung Association, a typical child in the U.S. gets six or eight colds per year. For parents, that’s six or eight chances to wonder what over-the-counter (OTC) medications they should give to relieve their kids’ coughs, sniffles, sneezes and stuffy noses. But with an aisle-long set of options available in supermarkets and drugstores, many parents find it hard to believe that the best medicine often is no medication at all.

Girl refusing cough syrup

Simply put, a cold virus needs to run its course. If your child’s cold symptoms are on the mild side, increasing his or her fluid intake, using saline solutions (available in a nasal spray at any drugstore) to irrigate nasal passages and hooking up a humidifier (or sitting in a steamy bathroom) to loosen congestion should be enough to provide relief. Only if cold symptoms don’t clear up in five to seven days, or if they worsen, are medicines needed—and then only after seeing your child’s doctor.

If it’s the flu that is making your child uncomfortable (and if he or she is over age 1), your pediatrician may be able to prescribe antiviral drugs to help your child feel better and get well sooner. But these must be given in the first couple of days, so check with your doctor.

For colds or flu, over-the-counter products are not recommended for children under 4 as studies have found them to be ineffective. Doctors say numerous studies have shown that these preparations have only a sedative effect—and that in the very young, sedation can sometimes complicate the breathing problems brought on by a cold or the flu.

Still, let’s say your child is four or older and you can’t help wanting to give something to relieve his or her symptoms. Here are five, easy-to-remember tips for navigating your drugstore’s pediatric-medicine aisle:

  • For fever and body aches, give acetaminophen with a temperature under 102.5 F, but switch to ibuprofen if the fever is higher than that. It’s more effective with higher temperatures.
  • For congestion, choose products with phenylephrine. This is the active ingredient in most OTC decongestants.
  • For wet, mucus-laden coughs, pick an expectorant—an agent that promotes the discharge of mucus—containing guaifenesin, which loosens phlegm and makes coughs more productive.
  • Don’t give a cough suppressant. Coughing is the body’s way of ridding itself of mucus, so some coughing is good. But if a child is up all night, particularly with what most parents would describe as a “deep” cough, he or she should be seen in the doctor’s office the next day, so it can be determined if the cough is caused by pneumonia or reactive airways, as with asthma and allergies.
  • Choose single-ingredient items. Some products are combinations—for example, an expectorant may also include a fever reducer such as acetaminophen. If parents give this expectorant product and also administer acetaminophen separately, they may not realize they’re double-dosing their child, and that can lead to another set of complications.

Provided by Maria Fareri Childrens Hospital at Westchester Medical Center

About Maria Fareri Childrens Hospital at Westchester Medical Center

Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center is the advanced care facility for the Hudson Valley and an advocate for children’s health and wellness. For more information on the Children’s Hospital and its services, please visit

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