How To Treat A Common Cold In Children And Babies

Many parents are cautious about using over-the-counter (OTC) medication to treat a cold in very young children and rightfully so. These drugs, while safe for teen and adult use, is not considered safe for young children. Widespread media attention about the dangers of using cold medicines has not been sufficient to stop the practise entirely – many parents continue to administer OTC cold medicines to their children despite being told not to. It results in thousands of emergency room visits every year, which could have been avoided if parents were more cautious.

Cold medicines can cause a range of side effects in children, some of which are very serious. Although the incidence of childhood death from using cold medicines is very low, it is nevertheless a possibility and most cautious parents would rather not take the chance. Some authorities advise that cold medicines should be avoided in children under 2 years only but now it is being recommended that these drugs should not be administered to children under 4 years of age. Using it in children who are older should be done so with caution and only with proper advice from a doctor and/or pharmacist.

Why are cold medicines dangerous?

Most of us consider cold medication as some of the safest drugs on the market. After all it is sold over the counter and millions of people use it daily so it must be safe, right? Not true. Cold medication has many active ingredients that can be dangerous even to adults. Usually the quantity of these ‘dangerous’ chemicals are so low that if a person follows the directions on the packaging they will most likely not experience any adverse effects. The 4 categories of cold medicines that should not be administered to children includes:

  • Antihistamines (certain types)
  • Cough expectorants
  • Cough suppressants
  • Decongestants

However, the same does not apply to children particularly those kids who are very young or have a low body weight. In these cases, just a small dose of a cold medicine can have a greater effect. It can increase the heart rate to dangerous levels, disrupt the brain activity and cause convulsions or even suppress normal breathing. Death is a possibility although rare. However, given that the common cold is in most cases a minor ailment, the risks of taking these drugs do not outweigh the benefit.

Correct Dose For Children

There is no correct dose of OTC cold medicines for children under 4 years of age. It should not be used at all. Remember that a cold will pass on its own within a few days. However, if the cold is serious (high fever, unresponsive/delirious child, inability to eat and so on) then you should seek medical advice. The doctor, preferably a pediatrician, may prescribe drugs for your child with specific instructions on how it should be used. Follow these directions very closely.

Unsupervised Use of Medicines

It is not all cold medicines that are a problem but the main danger arises with an overdose. The problem often arises with unsupervised use of cold medicines by children and ignorance on the part of the parents. When children are allowed to drink cough mixture in particular as and when they need it, they may consume too much and in fact be overdosing. Parents who allow young children to take medication themselves are being irresponsible. Children do not have the same ability to judge a situation even when parents giving warnings.

Combining Cold Medication

The other problem is the “mix and match” approach to treating ailments like a cold. The way any drug works is that the active ingredients within it have a chemical effect on the body. Many drugs have the same chemicals but in different proportions or different chemicals from the same drug group. By using several different brands of cold medication simultaneously, the administration of the active ingredients may exceed the safe level even for adults. It is therefore very important to speak to a pharmacist when treating a cold with OTC drugs but remember these medicines should be avoided altogether in young children.

How To Treat Kids With A Cold?

It is important to remember that the common cold is an acute viral infection. This means it is a short lived infection caused by a virus. Antibiotics destroys bacteria and some parasites and it is ineffective against a virus. Sometimes a secondary bacterial infection (usually of the throat and ears) may arise in children with or just after a cold and then antibiotics are necessary. But antibiotics are useless for the common cold. In fact a cold passes on its own within a short period of time and actually does not need to be treated with drugs. The body’s immune system will adapt to fight off the infection provided that a child is healthy, well rested and getting sufficient nutrition. Medical attention is always advisable but even your doctor will tell you that there is little modern medicine can do for a cold.

Cure For The Common Cold

Most cold medicines just ease the symptoms of a cold for a short period of time. It is not necessary for managing a cold. There is no cure as yet for the common cold, just as there is no cure for the flu. The best way to treat a cold is through conservative measures that allows the body the resources to fight off the infection and recover. Treating a common cold is therefore a matter of common sense rather than the most popular drugs on the market. Even many of the herbal remedies and nutritional supplements that are commonly used for treating a cold are ineffective. The symptoms of a cold are the worst for 2 to 3 days and the infection resolves within 5 to 10 days on its own, without needing any drugs, remedies or supplements.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleeping is the body’s way of recovering – from a long day, stress (physical/mental/emotional) and even illness. It is not surprising then that your child will want to sleep more than usual. Even if the child is not sleeping, he/she should be encouraged to rest in bed. There are no guidelines as to how much a child will sleep when they have the cold. Parents should not be concerned with excessive sleeping. However, if a child is unresponsive when being awoken, does not wake for food or fluids, has convulsions while sleeping or is severely listless then it is time to rush to the emergency room.

Plenty Of Fluids

You may have heard it time and again but it really is one of the most important measures. The child should be encouraged to drink as much water as possible. Fruit juices and energy drinks without caffeine are also good provided that the child is not vomiting and does not have diarrhea. Oral rehydrating solutions which are used to prevent dehydration is preferable over water alone. These solutions have at least some nutrition to sustain a child who does not want to eat. Extra fluids should be offered to the child after a bout of fever and sweating.

Eat Nutritious Meals

Your child is unlikely to have much of an appetite when down with a cold but this does not mean that you should let him/her skip meals. When solid foods are not going down well, then you may want to look at soups. There is some truth to claims that freshly cooked chicken soup may be good for you. Not only is it nutritious, but it also has many spices that could have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. And it is laden with fluids. The body needs good nutrition to recover so take time to prepare hearty home meals that are full of nutrients.

Clear Nasal Congestion

Nasal congestion is the main symptom in a cold and one of the most uncomfortable but you do not need decongestants to clear nasal stuffiness. There many simple non-drug measures that can do the trick. A saline nasal spray is quite an effective way to flush out the excess nasal mucus. You can use a suction bulb afterwards to draw out the nasal mucus in infants. Steam can also be useful and a hot bath may be helpful provided that your child does not have a fever. Room humidifiers can also be used to ease nasal congestion.

Sore Throat Remedies

Another common symptom that causes significant discomfort is a sore throat. If it is infected with bacteria then it will need to be treated with antibiotics. Otherwise a few simple measures can help ease the discomfort until the tissue heals. Gargling with warm salt water is an age old tradition and it works well. Throat lozenges can also be useful but it is also a choking hazard for very young children. Warm drinks or food can be soothing for a sore throat but it is cold that helps to ease the inflammation for short periods. Do not hesitate to give your child a little ice cream or cold water. It is not going to do any harm in moderation.


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