Division of Gastroenterology and Digestive Disorders

Treating kids’ colds

Recently, more than a dozen over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for young children were pulled from store shelves when a panel of medical advisors reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that these products don't work and could be dangerous to young children. That recommendation applied to products containing decongestants, antihistamines and cough suppressants, often identified by the letters “DM” or “DPH” in their names (for dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine).

One of the most surprising aspects of these findings was that, despite untold millions of these products being sold over the years, little if any research had ever been done on their effectiveness, particularly among children. (Antihistamines that have been recommended or prescribed for the control of allergies are an exception to this concern about effectiveness, especially in children older than two years of age.)

If you're like many parents, you probably felt some measure of relief at the FD's oversight, but that was probably mixed with concerns about what you were going to do when your young child came down with his or her first cold of the season. Even without these products, there's still a lot you can do. First, remember that colds are caused by viruses and, as such, cannot be cured by any medication. Your child's immune system will gradually overcome the effects of the virus and, in the meantime, your efforts should target alleviating your child's symptoms.

  • Give pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or (for children older than six months) ibuprofen for aches and pains from a cold. Check with your child's pediatrician first and be sure to only give the recommended dose and that the pain relievers aren't combined with other medicines, such as decongestants. Also remember that ibuprofen should not be given more often than every six to eight hours while acetaminophen can be given every four hours.
  • Use a suction bulb to clear the clogged noses of children who are too young to blow their own noses. You can administer saline nose drops (available in drug stores) to help loosen mucus in the child's nose. The saline also has some antiinflammatory effects that help relieve difficulty breathing.
  • Keep a cool mist humidifier running in the child's bedroom at night to loosen dry coughs. Avoid using cough suppressants. Remember that coughing is nature's way of helping to clear the lungs so a “wet” cough is a good sign. If your pediatrician approves, you can give your child an expectorant (guaifenesin) to help break up mucus along with fluids to make it more effective.
  • Plenty of liquids and lots of rest will help your child's body to recover more quickly. And yes, it's true, that chicken soup does help.

Finally, don't hesitate to contact your pediatrician's office with any questions or concerns. Be alert to warning signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea or a high fever that doesn't come down after medication, as these symptoms may indicate more than a cold. With a severe cold, your child could continue coughing for a couple of weeks. If your child's cough lingers beyond that time or if the cough and other symptoms begin to worsen, contact your pediatrician again. Also, remember that wheezing should be evaluated by a medical professional to assure that an asthmatic process is not a new onset or the cause of coughing.

Originally published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 11/07

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