logoThe People's Perspective on Medicine

How to Take Care of Kids with Colds

Parents should be wary of using OTC medicines to treat kids with colds. Some home remedies, such as honey for coughs, may be more helpful.
How to Take Care of Kids with Colds
Little girl get cold and blow her nose asian

Ask a pediatrician how to treat kids with colds, and you’ll probably learn that there are few, if any, medicines that speed recovery or even ease symptoms. During cold season, parents often search for over-the-counter medicines that will help young children overcome nasal congestion. But that could be a mistake.

Don’t Bother with Decongestants for Kids with Colds:

Clinicians writing in The BMJ reviewed clinical trials of common OTC products. They warn parents to avoid decongestants for youngsters 6 years old and younger (The BMJ, Oct. 10, 2018). There is no evidence they help stuffy noses and they carry potential side effects. If a child can’t breathe through her nose, using a nasal suction bulb to remove sticky mucus might help. An Italian study using an automated suction device found that colds and lung infections lasted a shorter time in high-risk kids (Italian Journal of Pediatrics, June 14, 2018).

Cough Medicines Aren’t Helpful for Kids with Colds:

Dextromethorphan (abbreviated DM) is the main ingredient in most OTC cough remedies. Despite brisk sales, there is no good evidence that these products are effective for youngsters (Lung, Feb. 2012). Although nasty reactions such as rapid heart rate or incoordination are not common, they do occasionally crop up (Clinical Toxicology, Jan. 2017).

Parents may be disappointed to hear this. When a child is coughing and can’t sleep, there is an overwhelming urge to do something. Home remedies may not be well studied, but they do offer an alternative to OTC medicines that might cause side effects.

Alternative Approaches for Treating Kids with Colds:

How About Honey?

Grandmothers have used a teaspoon of honey for decades to ease a cough. Babies under a year should never be given honey, though, because of a risk of botulism. Older children may find it much more pleasant than the bitter taste of dextromethorphan. There is even research to suggest that buckwheat honey might be helpful (Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Dec., 2007; Canadian Family Physician, April, 2011; Allergologia et Immunopathologia, Sep-Oct. 2015).

Vicks VapoRub for Cough:

Another old-fashioned remedy for children and adults has been around for at least a century. Vicks VapoRub was designed as a cough and cold salve and contains menthol and eucalyptol.

Many people are familiar with the pungent aroma of this ointment applied to the chest for a cough. But some families have been using Vicks on the soles of the feet.

One reader told us:

“Just last week, my grandson was staying here and had developed a cough starting that morning. When it didn’t go away, I searched my cabinet for cough medicine, but I was out. I remembered reading about putting Vicks on the soles of the feet and decided to test it out.

“It was unbelievable. He stopped coughing immediately and didn’t cough again until later the next day. I was really impressed.”

Another commented:

“My grandma used Vicks on the bottom of the feet. I am 70, so you know how long ago that was. I swear by Vicks on the feet or the chest but not in the nose.”

Indeed, Vicks should not be used in the nose. Inhaling the petroleum base could lead to lung problems (Respiratory Medicine Case Reports, July 8, 2017).

Will Probiotics Help?

Probiotics are usually recommended for gastrointestinal problems. They are supposed to restore a balance of beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. But they may also be helpful against colds.

A recent study on probiotics found that college students recovered from colds more quickly and missed fewer days of class if they took a powdered probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus LGG and Bifidobacterium animalis ssp. lactis BB12 rather than a placebo powder (British Journal of Nutrition, online Oct. 1, 2012). Unfortunately, a study of infants in day care did not find that supplementation with the probiotics Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis and Lactobacillus rhamnosus reduced days missed due to illness (Pediatrics, Aug. 2017). A meta-analysis of several studies suggested that probiotic use may be beneficial against the common cold (Explore, Sep-Oct., 2015).

Serve Up Some Chicken Soup:

Kids with colds may appreciate a steaming bowl of home-made chicken soup. This is a favorite cold remedy in many families, and there is even a small amount of research indicating that it can reduce inflammation and cold symptoms due to inflammation (Chest, Oct. 2000).

Learn More:

To learn more about cold remedies such as chicken soup (with a special recipe), elderberry, ginger, vitamins C and D and zinc, you may wish to consult our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu. For information on children’s health, we recommend checking out www.DrGreene.com.

Researchers are still a long way from finding a cure or even effective treatments for the common cold. In the meantime, though, traditional treatments have the stood the test of time for easing symptoms.

Rate this article
5- 5 ratings
About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Get the latest health news right in your inbox

Join our daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies AND you'll get a copy of our brand new full-length health guide — for FREE!

Screenshots of The People's Pharmacy website on mobile devices of various sizes
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.