Maybe it starts with the sniffles. Maybe it starts with a cough and mild aches and pains. Maybe it's a long day with an upset stomach. Whatever the cause, curing your child's cold signs and symptoms is going to take some know-how. This is a great place to start.
Using this visual guide, discover how to relieve your sick children at home and restore them to good health. Discover which medical treatments are effective remedies for the common cold. Also, learn how to safely give over-the-counter (OTC) medication if needed, to ease a fever, sore throat, runny nose, or other common cold symptoms.
Does your child's forehead feel hot? Does he or she wake up in a cold sweat? Fevers can be scary, but how hot does one need to be before a parent should find a way to cool it?
According to pediatricians, if your child is warmer than 100.4 degrees, he or she may be at an increased health risk. Call the doctor if your child is this warm and is fewer than 6 months old, shows other symptoms, has been feverish for three days or longer, or has yet to be vaccinated.
If these are not the case, it is generally safe to use children's ibuprofen or acetaminophen as common cold remedies, which have the additional benefit of pain relief. Aspirin should never be given to anyone under age 19, say many pediatric doctors. Aspirin use in children elevates the risk of Reye's syndrome, a serious but rare illness that can harm the brain and liver.
Beyond calling the doctor and offering over-the-counter medication to your child, there are a few other ways to help reduce their high temperature.
- Try a sponge bath. Use water that is lukewarm.
- Avoid rubbing alcohol, cold water, and ice.
- Instead of piling on blankets, make sure your child is resting at a comfortable temperature and is dressed lightly.
- Watch out for dehydration symptoms.
- If your infant's diaper is dry, has a dry tongue or mouth, or is feeding poorly, call a health-care professional immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.
- For older children showing signs of dehydration such as not urinating frequently enough, not drinking well, or acting abnormally, call the pediatrician.
When your child has a high fever or is dehydrated, you need to call the doctor right away. But outside of overheating and dehydration, when else should you seek medical care? Here are some guidelines:
- Call if you suspect your baby under 12 months old might have the flu;
- Call if your baby under 12 months old is not urinating or drinking frequently enough;
- Call if your child's nasal mucus is either green or yellow, or if you notice any discharge after a period of 10 days, or if discharge appears to come from his or her eyes;
- Call if the child is feverish for three days or longer.
Some situations are even more serious, and require an immediate trip to the emergency room. Go to the emergency room if your child has difficulty breathing, seems very sick, will not to eat or drink, shows signs of a rash, or anytime you are concerned.
Believe it or not, the answer is yes, for a few reasons. For one, there have been studies that show a connection between eating chicken soup and reducing inflammation.
Even without the possible inflammation-reducing powers of chicken soup, it's a nutritious brew that can improve health and help promote hydration. But don't stop at just chicken soup. Give your sick child lots of other fluids, like milk, water, or an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte or Gatorade.
Other Home Remedies
Steam is a great way to help a stuffy nose, and that can help remedy the pain of congestion. Have your child inhale steam from a hot shower or a cool mist vaporizer.
Menthol chest rubs can also be helpful. They help loosen mucus to be coughed out. A word of warning: Do not use medicated vapor on anyone under age 2.
Finally, after nose-blowing has left your child's face a little raw, try petroleum jelly under the nose to soothe irritated skin.
Usually colds are the culprits when it comes to sore throats, and they tend to last about four or five days. How to relieve a sore throat depends on age.
- Children over 2 can find relief from a warm, caffeinate-free tea or water with about 1/2 tsp. of honey with lemon.
- Children over 1 can receive 1 tsp. of buckwheat honey for cough relief.
- Children 6 and older can find relief from over-the-counter lozenges with anesthetic that helps ease pain. Hard candy is another suitable option—sugar-free being best for their health. A warm salt water gargle may also be helpful.
Strep throat tends to arise quickly. Sometimes strep comes with no other cold symptoms. If you think your child has strep, call your doctor for a strep test and antibiotics, if necessary.
If your child is under age 4, don't give him or her cough medicine or over-the-counter cold medication. These OTC medications will do little to help symptoms in toddlers, according to several studies. Not only are they ineffective, but these medications may cause serious and potentially life-threatening side effects in young children. Instead, give your child extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Employ a nasal aspirator and a humidifier to further restore health.
Medications that relieve multiple symptoms may be tempting, but use them cautiously. Stick with medications that match your child's symptoms. That means it's OK to use multi-symptom over-the-counter treatment – just as long as those symptoms match the ones your child is suffering from.
To make sure you're not over-medicating your child, read the directions on the back of all medication and follow them carefully. If your OTC medicine came with a measuring device, use it. Don't choose products that treat symptoms your child isn't suffering from. A multi-symptom cold medicine would be a poor choice, for example, for a child who is only experiencing a sore throat.
When administering medication to children, read the label carefully. Don't give your child two over-the-counter medications with the same active ingredients, which could lead to an overdose.
Oftentimes children's cold medications come with acetaminophen -- the same as Tylenol. So if you don't read carefully, it can be shockingly simple to over medicate your child. Medicine comes with a “drug facts” box, which is a great place to start. Compare ingredients found there to reduce the risk of an overdose.
Decongestants and expectorants work in different ways, and both remedies can lead your child to better health when used in the right way.
Stuffy nasal passages shrink when decongestants are used. This helps relieve pain. These forms of medication are available as nasal sprays or drops or as oral treatments. Nasal drops or sprays should be discontinued after being used for two or three days straight.
On the other hand, expectorants help to thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. For an expectorant to work properly, your child needs to drink plenty of water.
Cough suppressants don't do much in the way of removing mucus. That's why it is often not to suppress a cough, even the cough is keeping a child awake at night.
Don't give any cold medication to anyone under 4 without speaking to your child's doctor.
Over-the-counter treatments can be a great remedy for the common cold, but exercise caution when using them. Administer OTC medication only according to the directions. Make sure you base the dosage on your child's weight and age. And don't forget to read the "Warnings" sections for potential side effects and drug interactions.
Also be mindful of these common abbreviations often found on labels:
- Tbsp (tablespoon) and Tsp (teaspoon),
- oz. (ounces),
- ml. (milliliter), and
- mg. (milligram).
Those are all very different measurements.
Also, use the measuring device that is packaged with the medication for most accurate dosing.
One of the best common cold remedies is rest, so let your children sleep as much as they need to. If you need to skip a dose of over-the-counter medicine so that your child may sleep longer, go ahead and skip the medicine. Remember: you'll have a chance to administer that medicine again when your child wakes up, or possibly the next morning. Take your child to a doctor if he or she has been taking an OTC medicine for four days or longer.
It can make a difference. Common kitchen spoons vary in size. It is safer to use the cup or spoon that comes with over-the-counter medication.
Wondering what to do if no measuring device came with the medication? The label will recommend something like 2 teaspoons be administered. In that case, use an actual dosing cup or measuring spoon that comes with teaspoon marks. You can then rest easy knowing you've given him or her the right amount.
So the first dose didn't agree with your child, who went and spit it out or vomited after taking medicine. A concerned parent may want to follow up with another full dose, but don't do it. Some of that medication may have been absorbed, and if you give another full dose you risk overdosing him or her.
It's better to call the pediatrician in times like this. If your child tends to spit up medication because he or she doesn't like it, ask your pharmacist if it's alright to mix the remedy with a bit of food or drink.
It is never a good idea to give your child OTC treatments designed for adults. You can do no better than guess at how much your child might need, and some remedies are specifically formulated for adults and should not be administered to children. For that reason, avoid any products not specifically labeled for use in infants, babies, or children with the words "for pediatric use."
You may be tempted to call medicine "candy" in order to encourage your children to take it. But it's not a good idea. Little kids love to imitate the adults in their lives. To make sure you're setting the best possible example, consider these tips:
- Try to avoid taking medicine in front of your children, whether it's for a prescription or over-the-counter.
- Never call any medication "candy."
- Avoid rewarding children with medication that tastes sweet -- children's vitamins included. Instead, offer a favorite drink after medicine has been administered to help wash away the taste.
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- Beyond calling the doctor and offering over-the-counter medication to your child, there are a few other ways to help reduce their high temperature.
- AAP/Healthy Children: "Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?" Nov. 21, 2018.
- CDC: "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others." Oct. 7, 2020.
- Steven J. Parker, MD; associate professor of pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine; WebMD pediatric consultant; co-author, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (1998 edition).
- Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth.com: Medications: Using Them Safely."
- American Society of Health-System Pharmacists/SafeMedication.com: "Medications and You."
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Public Health Advisory: Nonprescription Cough and Cold Medicine Use in Children," "How to Give Medicine to Children," "Preventing Iron Poisoning in Children."
- Safe Kids USA: "Poison Safety."
- Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Children Act Fast…So Do Poisons."
- WebMD Medical Reference: "Kids' Cold Medicines: New Guidelines," "Soothing Your Child's Cold," "Natural Cold & Flu Remedies Slideshow," "Children and Colds," "Strep Throat."
- Palos Community Hospital, Palos, Ill.: "Medication Safety."
- Federal Trade Commission: "Remedies for the Common Cold."
- CDC: "Common Cold and Runny Nose."
- Harvard Medical School: "Common Cold (Viral Rhinitis)"
- University of Maryland Medical Center: "Common Cold."
- University of Michigan Health Services: "Colds and Flu: Upper Respiratory Infections."