How to Give Your Child Cold and Flu Medicine

Mother comforting her child in bed.

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

As a parent, it is tough seeing your child get sick. Fall and winter are prime seasons for catching a bug, with the flu and common cold being two of the most prevalent. It is estimated that most kids will catch a cold six to eight times a year (and more if they are in daycare), and 20 to 30 percent of children get the flu each year.

It isn't always easy to differentiate between a cold and the flu, making it that much harder to determine whether any medication is needed. Giving your child cold or flu medicine may seem like the best option when your little one has the sniffles, but that isn't always the case.

Here, with the help of experts, we will take a look at everything you need to know about giving your child cold and flu medicine.

Understanding Cold and Flu Symptoms in Children

Since cold and flu symptoms can seem fairly similar, it is helpful to be able to differentiate between the two illnesses. Here is how you can tell which is which.

Cold Symptoms

While every child is different, there are some general guidelines for cold symptoms. "It is important for parents to know what to expect in a 'typical cold,'" says Florencia Segura, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics in Vienna, Virginia. "One of the most common reasons parents reach for medications is because of concerns that the cold might be 'lasting too long.'"

She explains that in babies and toddlers, the most common symptoms of a cold include runny nose, cough, and fever, and typically peak on the second or third day of illness. Their symptoms should gradually improve over 10 to 14 days, but a lingering cough can last three to four weeks.

Common Cold Symptoms in Kids

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fatigue

The signs of a cold are similar in older kids, but they can also have a scratchy throat, headaches, muscle aches, mild hacking cough, watery eyes, sneezing, and a watery nasal discharge that usually thickens and turns yellow or green. "In older children and adolescents, symptoms usually resolve in five to seven days," says Dr. Segura.

Flu Symptoms

When it comes to the flu, there are three main types: Influenza A, B, and C, with types A and B popping up almost every winter. Complications with types A and B can lead to hospitalization, so flu vaccines are incredibly important. Influenza type C is a less severe illness that can cause mild respiratory symptoms or no symptoms at all.

Common Flu Symptoms in Kids

  • High-grade fever (103°F (39.4°C) to 105°F (40.5°C))
  • Sore throat and cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Head, muscle, or body aches
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

While flu symptoms in children are similar to a cold, one of the biggest differences is their fever. A cold might cause a low-grade fever, but the flu can cause much higher temperatures, reaching 103°F (39.4°C) to 105°F (40.5°C). That said, much like the common cold, not everyone with the flu will develop a fever.

Aside from high-grade fever, the most common flu symptoms in children include a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle, headaches, muscle and body aches, fatigue, cough, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Giving Your Child Cold and Flu Medicine 

For babies and toddlers, over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu medicine should be avoided whenever possible, unless instructed by a healthcare provider. "There is no evidence that cold and flu medications make any difference for sick children," explains Corey Fish, MD, a pediatrician, and the chief medical officer at Brave Care in Portland, Oregon. "In fact, the [American Academy of Pediatrics] recommends against these medicines for kids."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, over-the-counter cold and flu medicine should not be given to children younger than 6 years.

That said, not all medications are off the table for young children. Here are the safest options for infants, toddlers, and older children based on their symptoms:

Fever or Pain

When it comes to fever, headaches, or other pain, the safest options for children over three months include acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) for children older than three months and ibuprofen (such as Motrin) for children over six months.

Dr. Fish adds that children younger than three months may also take these medications as long as you consult with a healthcare provider first. Additionally, children and teenagers should never take aspirin due to the risk of Reye syndrome, a rare but very serious illness that affects the liver and the brain.

Due to the risk of Reye Syndrome, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that aspirin should not be given to children or teenagers.

Nasal Congestion

Luckily, a stuffy nose is treatable, no matter a child's age. "Nasal saline drops or a saline nasal spray are safe for all ages, including newborns, to help with nasal congestion," says Dr. Segura. She explains that for children over 12 years, decongestants that can help include pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed), phenylephrine (in many cold and flu oral medicines), or oxymetazoline (such as Afrin).

If you would rather avoid nasal sprays, using a suction bulb is a safe, effective option for infants (especially under six months of age). You can also place a cold-mist humidifier in your child's room to help clear congestion.

Cough

Because the AAP advises against OTC cough and cold medications for young children, the best thing you can do is let a cough run its course. In most cases of the cold or flu, a cough is considered a good thing! Coughing up mucus helps protect the lungs from pneumonia, so it is important not to completely suppress your child's cough.

That said, there are some safe ways to ease a cough if needed. Dr. Segura states that for kids over the age of 6, hard candy or lozenges are safe for treating a cough with no choking risk. 

Dr. Fish suggests one to two teaspoons of honey for a cough for children older than 1 year of age. Infants younger than 1 year should never be given honey due to the risk of botulism, a rare, potentially deadly illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves.

Tips for Giving Your Child Cold and Flu Medicine

For any medication you give your child for a cold or flu, there are some important tips to keep in mind. Most importantly, always use the dropper, syringe, medicine cup, or dosing spoon that comes with the medicine. Ask your doctor if one is not provided. You should never use any household spoons to measure.

If you need help administering medicine to a young child that uses pacifiers, Dr. Fish recommends making a slit in the bottom of a pacifier well to load the medicine. For older children, he suggests mixing medicine with something sweet-tasting like juice or chocolate syrup.

Along these lines, you should never refer to medicine as "candy," since children may be tempted to reach for it when you are not around, putting them at risk for poisoning.

The amount of medicine you provide is based on your child's weight, so always be sure to check the dosage chart. Most importantly, you should always contact your health provider if you have any questions about medication.

A Word From Verywell

While there is a variety of cold and flu medicines on the market for kids, the best thing you can do is to let the illness run its course, as hard as that can be sometimes!

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and saline nasal sprays are the safest options for little ones. It is important to avoid OTC cold and flu medicine for children under 6 years of age unless you are given the okay by a healthcare provider. By giving your child plenty of rest, fluids, and snuggles, they will be back to their healthy, happy selves in no time.

Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stanford Children's Health. Common Cold in Children. Accessed September 27, 2021.

  2. National Foundation For Infectious Diseases. Influenza and Children. Accessed September 27, 2021.

  3. Boston Children's Hospital. Colds in Children. Accessed September 28, 2021.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Influenza (Flu) in Children. Updated 2021.

  5. HealthyChildren.org. Caring for Your Child's Cold or Flu. Updated May 2019.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Child's Cold or Flu. Updated April 19, 2019.

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Reye Syndrome. Updated November 21, 2015.

  8. Seattle Children's. Cough. Updated March 11, 2021.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Botulism. Updated June 1, 2021.

  10. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to Use Liquid Medicines for Children. Updated May 10, 2015.