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Cold Medicine Safety

When your baby has the sniffles, sneezes, stuffy nose and cough you may be tempted to reach for the cold medicine to help them feel better. But, for children under 2, and especially for newborns and infants, over-the-counter cold medicines – even those formulated specifically for children – should not be given unless you've spoken with your child's doctor.

In fact, when it comes to infants under 3 months of age, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends calling your baby's doctor as soon as you think they have a cold, because colds in infants can quickly develop into more serious problems such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

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But still, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies get about 8 to 10 colds before the age of two, more if they have older brothers and sisters. So what should you do, and not do, if your baby gets a cold?

What to do

Home care

If your baby has a stuffy nose from a cold, using a suction bulb can help to clear it. A cool-mist humidifier or a warm-air vaporizer keeps moisture in the air, helping to loosen congestion. If you use a humidifier or vaporizer, clean and dry it well every day to prevent the buildup of bacteria and mold. Steam can also give babies and young children much needed relief from a stuffy nose and even congestion. Turn your bathroom into a steam room by closing the door and running the shower with only hot water. Sit with your baby for 10-15 minutes.

Be sure your baby is staying hydrated. If your baby is having trouble feeding, offer smaller, more frequent feeds.

Watch this video as Dr. Heeten Masters demonstrates how to clear your baby's stuffy nose.

Giving medicine

If your health care provider does prescribe medication for your baby, here are some very important guidelines to follow:

Double check. First, check to make sure you have the correct prescription. Many prescription and medicine bottles look the same, so make sure your child's name is on the label and it's the medicine that the doctor recommended or prescribed.

Be especially careful when reaching into the medicine cabinet in the middle of the night – it's easy to grab the wrong bottle when you're sleepy.

Read all instructions. Both prescription and OTC medicines usually come with printed inserts about common side effects and further instructions on how to take the medicine. Be sure to read all information carefully before beginning the medicine. The label may instruct you to shake a liquid medicine before using so that the active ingredients are evenly distributed throughout it. Call the doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

With or without food? All prescription medicines have labels or instructions about how to take them. For example, "take with food or milk" means the medicine may upset an empty stomach or that food may improve its absorption. In this case, your child should eat a snack or meal right before or after taking the medicine.

Another common instruction on prescription medicines is "take on an empty stomach," in which case your child should take the medicine 1 hour before or 2 hours after a meal because food may prevent the medicine from working properly or may delay or reduce its absorption. Some medicines interact only with certain foods or nutrients, such as dairy products, so be sure to check the label for other instructions.

The right dose. Giving the correct dose is important because most medicines need to be taken in a certain amount and at certain times to be effective. The dose will be written on the prescription label or, on OTC medicines, should be printed on the package insert, product box or product label.

Measure carefully. You can dispense medicine in a variety of ways. For babies who can't drink from a cup, try a dosing syringe, which lets you dispense the medicine into your baby's mouth, making it less likely to be spit out. Be careful, though – many come with a small cap on the end that can be a choking hazard to young children. Store a medicine syringe in a safe place out of the reach of kids.


Fever is a sign that you child's body is fighting off infection. If your child has a low fever, be sure to keep them hydrated.

If you have an infant 3 months or younger with a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, call your doctor or go to the emergency department immediately. If your child is between 3 months and 3 years old and has a fever of 102.2°F (39°C) or higher, call your doctor to find out if he or she needs to see your child.

Things to watch out for

Aspirin alert

Never give aspirin to kids, especially during viral illnesses. Using aspirin during an illness caused by a virus (such as the flu, chickenpox, or an upper respiratory infection) can cause Reye syndrome. This potentially life-threatening disease can cause nausea, vomiting and extreme tiredness that progresses to a coma.

Some over the counter (OTC) medicines (including some that treat headache and nausea) contain aspirin. So always read labels and check with your doctor or pharmacist before using them. Also, some aspirin-containing medicines use words other than aspirin, such as salicylate or acetylsalicylate. Avoid those too.

Honey risks

Do not give honey to children younger than 12 months. Honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism. Honey is safe for people 1 year of age and older. After the age 1, honey does help to calm a cough and soothe a sore throat.

Liquor/alcohol as medicine

Never give a baby liquor for cold symptoms, or for any reason including colic and teething. Sometimes well-meaning parents, grandparents, relatives or friends may suggest that this is what they used when their children were little. Today, we know better. Even when given in very small amounts, alcohol is metabolized much differently in infants and children and can have dangerous and long-term consequences.

Rubbing alcohol dangers

Because rubbing alcohol cools the skin quickly, it was once believed to reduce fever. However, because it does cool the skin quickly, it can cause your baby to shiver, signaling the body to respond by actually increasing temperature. Rubbing alcohol can also be absorbed into the baby's skin, resulting in serious consquences and even a medical emergency.

Medication awareness

  • Never use leftover medicines. For example, pharmacists will sometimes dispense more liquid medicine than is needed in case some is spilled or measured incorrectly. If you have leftover liquid medicine, throw it out. For medicines taken as needed, keep an eye on the expiration date to make sure you don't give an outdated medicine.
  • Never give your child medicines that have been prescribed to someone else, whether it's an adult or child. Even if two people have the same illness, they may need different drugs with different dosages and directions.
  • Never give a child a medicine that is meant for adults.
  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving two types of medicines with the same ingredients to your child.
  • When buying OTC medicines, check the packaging for possible tampering, and don't use any medicine in a cut, torn or sliced package. Check the expiration date too.
  • Work with a local pharmacist so that your family's medicine history is in a central location. Consult your pharmacist if you have questions about any medicine, including information about possible side effects or reactions.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.