A Guide to Cough Medicines in Children – Forbes Health

A Guide to Cough Medicines in Children – Forbes Health

Children’s cough medicines may be made up of one or more active ingredients, which are intended to help relieve the symptoms of a cold.


A decongestant is intended to relieve nasal congestion. “Decongestants claim to help you produce less mucus, which is supposed to make you cough less,” says Dr. Lavin. When you have a cold, the blood vessels and tissue in your nose swell, leaving you feeling stuffy. Decongestants work to narrow the blood vessels in your nose so you feel less stuffy. The American Academy of Family Physicians does not recommend that any child under the age of 6 take decongestants, as many of them contain the active ingredients phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine, which can be dangerous. Due to possible side effects, you will often need to see a pharmacist to purchase a decongestant that contains pseudoephedrine. To avoid this, some drug companies label it as phenylephrine, a similar ingredient that offers minimal symptom improvement. Pseudoephedrine is not recommended for those who have heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, diabetes, or difficulty urinating because it can increase blood pressure.


Cough suppressants work by blocking your body’s cough reflex. Suppressants are also sometimes combined with expectorants to treat both cough and symptoms such as mucus. Occasionally, suppressants will have codeine in them, says Dr. Lavin. However, since February 2018, codeine suppressants have become prescription drugs. Dextromethorphan is a common ingredient that is available without a prescription, but it can also have negative effects if consumed in excess. A 2010 study found that dextromethorphan carries the potential for abuse and dependence, which is one reason to avoid giving it to a young child.

A 2014 report looking at over-the-counter cough medicines for children and adults found no evidence that these medicines actually work for acute coughs. Nineteen studies actually found negative side effects of these drugs, including nausea, vomiting, headache, and drowsiness.


Expectorants thin mucus and are intended to draw and remove mucus from the airways. The active ingredient is guaifenesin, and you’ll usually find it in over-the-counter medications like Robitussin and Mucinex, says Dr. Lavin.


If your child is coughing and congested due to allergies, antihistamines may be an option, but if it’s a run-of-the-mill cold, they probably won’t change anything. Antihistamines have not been shown to be effective in relieving symptoms of the common cold, including cough, and are better for treating an allergic reaction. “Antihistamines just block mucus caused by allergies,” says Dr. Lavin. “So they don’t really do anything with the mucus created by a cold.”

Recent studies have struggled to find conclusive evidence on whether or not antihistamines really work for children and adults with chronic cough. However, limited evidence from a 2021 report found minimal effects on cough.

homeopathic options

There are many children’s cough medicines on the shelves labeled homeopathic, which means an alternative system of medicine based on the idea that highly diluted substances can help the body heal itself. These homeopathic products are not recommended by the FDA, and no homeopathic products are sold in the US that meet FDA requirements for safety and efficacy. According to the FDA, there are no proven benefits of these products and they should not be given to children under 4 years of age.

Additionally, some of these products have been found to contain higher levels of active ingredients than stated on the label and could cause significant harm to a young child, including seizures, difficulty breathing and allergic reactions, the FDA continues.

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