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Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?

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When it comes to treating coughs and colds, home remedies may sometimes work better than medicines.

Here's what parents need to know about ways to help children feel better when they have a cough or cold.

Cough & cold medicines

Oral over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines can cause serious harm to young children. The risks of using these medicines is more than any help the medicines might have in reducing cold symptoms.

  • Under age 4: Over-the-counter cough and cold medicine is not recommended for babies and young children.

  • From ages 4 to 6 years: Cough medicine should be used only if recommended by your child's doctor.

  • After age 6: Cough medicines are safe to use. Just be sure to follow the instructions on the package about the right amount of medication to give.

Luckily, you can easily treat coughs and colds in young children without these cough and cold medicines.

Children’s misuse or unintentional use of the prescription cough medication benzonatate prompted a recent increase in calls to poison control. If you suspect a benzonate overdose, call 911 immediately. For non-emergency questions, call Poison Help at 1-800-222-1222. For find more medication safety tips here.

Home remedies for cold symptoms

A good home remedy is safe, does not cost a lot, and can help your child feel better. They are also found in almost every home.

Here is how you can treat your child's symptoms with home remedies:

For a runny nose:

  • Suction (with something like a bulb syringe) to pull out the liquid out of your child's nose or ask your child to blow their nose. When your child's nose runs like a faucet, it's getting rid of viruses. Watch the video, Reasons Why Your Child Has a Runny Nose.

For a blocked or stuffy nose:

  • For children 3 months to 1 year of age: Infants with a common cold may feed more slowly or not feel like eating because they are having trouble breathing. Try to suction baby's nose before attempting to breast or bottle-feed.
Breastfeeding is still recommended for infants with common colds. If it is difficult for your baby to feed at the breast, expressing breastmilk into a cup or bottle may be an option.

Use salt water (saline) nose spray or drops to loosen up dried mucus. Then you can ask your child to blow their nose or by sucking the liquid from the nose with a bulb syringe. If you do not have nose spray or drops, warm water will work fine.

Put 2 to 3 drops in the opening of each nose (nostril). Do this one side at a time. Then suck out the liquid or have your child blow their nose.

You can buy saline nose drops and sprays in a pharmacy without a prescription, or you can make your own saline solution (see below).

Do nasal washes whenever your child can't breathe through the nose. For infants who bottle-feed or breastfeed, use nose drops before feedings. Teens can just splash warm water into their nose. Keep doing the nasal washes until what comes out of the nose is clear.

How to make your own saline nasal rinse

Add ½ teaspoon of non-iodized salt and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda to 1 cup (8 oz) of warm water. Stir to dissolve the salt and baking soda. You should use sterile, distilled or previously boiled water for nasal washes.

For sticky, stubborn mucus:
  • Use a wet cotton swab to get rid of sticky mucus around the nose.

For coughing:

  • Do not give infants under 1 year honey; it will not help with symptoms and can cause a sickness called infant botulism.

  • For children 1 year and older: Consider using honey, 2 to 5 mL, as needed. The honey thins the mucus and loosens the cough. (If you do not have honey, you can try corn syrup.) Research has shown that honey is better than store-bought cough syrups at reducing how often coughing happens and how bad coughing is at night.

  • For children 2 years and older: You can rub a thick layer of a mentholated rub on the skin over the chest and neck (over the throat). As with all medicines, follow directions closely and put it up and away, out of your child's reach, once you are done using it.

Other ways to ease your child's cold symptoms

Offer plenty of fluids

Humidity (amount of water in the air)

  • If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. Moist air keeps mucus in the nose from drying up and makes the airway less dry. Running a warm shower for a while can also help the air be less dry. Sometimes, it can be helpful for your child to sit in the bathroom and breathe the warm mist from the shower.

Treatment is not always needed

If cold symptoms are not bothering your child, they likely don't need medicine or home remedies. Many children with a cough or a stuffy nose are happy, play normally and sleep well.

Only treat symptoms if they make your child uncomfortable, have trouble sleeping, or the cough is really bothersome (such as a hacking cough).

Because fevers help your child's body fight infections, only treat a fever if it slows your child down or causes discomfort. This doesn't usually happen until your child's temperature reaches 102°F (39°C) or higher. If needed, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be safely used to treat fever or pain.


Talk with your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child's cough and cold symptoms.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2018)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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