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Health Tips for Parents


Health Tips for Parents

2011 Issues

Do cold and cough medicines work?


HT-March2011-Cold MedicinesParents often look for a quick fix to their child’s cold and cough symptoms. But, according to Dennis Woo, M.D., UCLA pediatrician, most colds will last seven to 10 days with or without treatment.

Colds and coughs are often accompanied by a tickle in the throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and/or congestion.

“Over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines, cough suppressants and decongestants may mask some cold and cough symptoms, but there has never been good evidence that they work,” Dr. Woo says. “Moreover, for children under 2, there is the added concern that we don’t have reliable information about safe and proper dosages.”

In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about giving OTC cough and cold medicine to children under 2 years old, following reports of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects in babies and toddlers. In response, manufacturers voluntarily pulled them from the shelves, but some remain in medicine cabinets. Research is still being conducted about the safety and effectiveness of these medications for children under the age of 12.

Risk of adverse and potentially dangerous reactions, including convulsions, increased heart rates and altered consciousness, are particularly high for the youngest children when they receive doses that are too potent or given too frequently.

Dr. Woo also notes that antibiotics, which fight bacteria, are not effective for treating colds, which are caused by viruses. In fact, overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance and reduced effectiveness when they are needed to fight a bacterial infection.

Further, OTC topical remedies that are rubbed into a child’s chest may provide a soothing smell, but there is no evidence that this helps with cough or congestion. Dr. Woo notes that studies have shown over-dosage of this type of medication may lead to seizures in children under the age of 2.

Setting Limits

“Parents often feel helpless when their child is sick and turn to OTCs and antibiotics for a ’cure all’,” Dr. Woo observes. “I firmly believe that we tend to overmedicate our kids in hopes that it will make them feel better faster, but nothing makes the cold go away faster than rest and letting the cold cure itself.”

Non-medication suggestions to alleviate symptoms

  • Drinking a lot of fluids
  • Place cool-mist humidifier in room to increase air moisture
  • Use bulb syringe to suck out any excess mucous (for children under 2 years)
  • Sleep with head slightly elevated to improve nasal drainage
  • Use saline drops in the nose to loosen mucous
  • Use steam from a hot shower to help congestion
  • Drink honey with tea (for children older than 1 year)


This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. UCLA Health pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. All health and health-related information contained in this publication is intended to be general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional.

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