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Cough Medicine or Home Remedies: How to Treat Your Child’s Cough

It’s the middle of the night, and you’re awoken again to the sound of your child’s horrible cough. You hate to see your little one sick, so you naturally want to do everything possible to help.

Conditions like croup, asthma, allergies and the common cold can all lead to coughing in kids – especially at bedtime. 

Pharmacy shelves have many options for treating children’s colds and coughs. While the instinct might be to reach for one to relieve their cough, there may be safer and gentler home remedies that also work better.

“Coughing is your body’s way of getting rid of stuff from the throat and lungs, helping you feel better,” said Gina Montion, MD, a pediatrician with Banner Children’s.

If your child’s nasty cough has them (and you) up at night, continue reading to understand more about the safety of children’s cough medicine and natural ways to treat it.

Is cough medicine safe for children?

Dr. Montion cautions parents about the use of children’s cough medicines. 

“Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines have no evidence that they are effective at treating coughs. Worse, they can have dangerous, unwanted side effects,” she said. 

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) don’t recommend these OTC medicines for babies and children under 4 years of age. In fact, some cough medicines have ingredients that can be risky, like:

  • Dextromethorphan (DMX): In many cough syrups, DMX can cause side effects like dizziness, confusion and hallucinations. In rare cases, it can lead to serotonin syndrome, a life-threatening condition.
  • Codeine: Some cough medicines may contain codeine, an opioid. This drug can cause breathing problems, which is very concerning for children.
  • Decongestants: Pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, commonly found in cold and cough medications, can increase children’s heart rates and blood pressure.

For children over the age of 4, don’t give OTC medicine unless you have checked with your child’s health care provider first. Make sure to read the labels of cough medicines carefully. Always stick to the recommended dose and age limits on the package.

Ways to treat your child’s cough without medication

Most school-aged children get several colds a year. Many last a few days to two weeks. Although time is usually the best medicine, there are things you can do to help them feel more comfortable. 

Drink fluids

One of the simplest and most effective ways to ease a cough is by making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. This helps soothe the throat and prevent dehydration. They can sip on water, clear broths and decaffeinated herbal teas.

Honey magic

For kids over the age of 2, Dr. Montion recommended 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime and again every two hours, if needed. 

Humidify the air

Dry air can make coughs worse, especially at night. Using a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room adds moisture to the air, helping soothe their airways. Be sure to clean the humidifier regularly to prevent mold and bacteria growth.

Run a hot shower

Inhaling steam from a warm shower or bath can help loosen mucus and help with coughs. Be safe around water and never leave young children alone in the bathroom. 

Elevate the head

Prop your child’s head up with an extra pillow to help with drainage while they sleep. Place a rolled towel under the mattress (no more than 30 degrees) for infants and babies. Don’t place pillows in bed with your baby. 

Suck it up

You can use a Nose Frida or similar nose aspirator for infants to gently clear a stuffy or runny nose

Relieve pain and fever

Children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen (Tylenol and Motrin/Advil) can be used to reduce fever, aches and pain. Carefully read and follow the product’s instructions or ask your child’s health care provider for help.

Gargle salt water

For older kids, your child can gargle warm salt water to help soothe a sore throat and tickly cough.

Stay home and rest

Don’t rush them back to school or daycare. Ensure your child stays home and gets plenty of sleep to help their body recover. “Viral illnesses are most contagious in the first week,” said Dr. Montion. “After that, they can return when their cough is less frequent and wouldn’t disrupt the class.”

When should you call your child’s provider?

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

“Bring your child in to be seen if their symptoms don’t improve (or their cough continues) after two weeks,” said Dr. Montion. 

Your child should also be seen sooner if they have the following symptoms:

  • Problems breathing: If your child struggles to breathe or shows signs of respiratory distress, call 911.
  • Chest pain with breathing: If your child complains of chest pain while coughing, schedule an appointment with their provider.
  • Wheezing: Wheezing is a high-pitched whistle sound that occurs during breathing and may suggest issues with the airways. Schedule an appointment with your child’s provider.
  • A seal-like barking cough: A loud barking cough could be a sign of croup, which can be dangerous for young children. Call your provider right away.
  • High or prolonged fever: Call your provider if your child’s fever is 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher (older than two months) or 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (infants two months old or younger).

Always trust your instincts as a parent. If you’re concerned about your child’s health, you should check with a provider to rule out any serious issues.

Bottom line

While cough medicine may seem like your best bet at tackling your child’s persistent cough, time is the best (and safest) medicine. There are simple, natural remedies that can often provide relief without the potential risks related to cough medicine. 

And, as always, contact your child's health care provider or a Banner Children's specialist if you have any questions or concerns. 

If your child is taking OTC medications, read the labels carefully and stick to the package’s recommended dose and age limits. Call the Banner Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 or 602-253-3334 if your child overdoses on cough or cold medication, and keep the bottle handy. 

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