Cough and cold medications treat cold symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing or cough. Although they have a long history of use, there is actually very limited evidence of how well they work in children.
For many years, we assumed that medications act the same way in both adults and children. Products for children were approved based on estimations from adults. However, time has brought more understanding about how these products work in children. The former assumptions did not hold true.
Apart from finding little evidence to support their use by young children, Health Canada has received reports of misuse and overdose. Reports of rare but serious side effects, including convulsions, increased heart rate and hallucinations have been linked with medications. Although most incidents were due to accidental overdose, they occurred often enough to raise concern about their safety for younger children.
Several factors influenced Health Canada’s decision to use age six as the minimum age for these medications.
A child over six is more able to ask for help.
Health Canada’s decision affected cough and cold products bought without a prescription that were labelled for use in children less than six years old. They have one or more of these ingredients:
The warning does not affect common pain and anti-fever medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Certain antihistamines are included in the advisory. However, an antihistamine used alone to treat allergy symptoms in children is not affected.
Over-the-counter cough and cold medications that have dosing information for children must say on the label that children under age six should not use them. New labels are to be in place by the fall of 2009.
Some products with dosing information for children under age six may still be in your home. Be aware that they should not be used for younger children.
New labelling will include more information about doses for children over six. All children’s cough and cold products will be packed in child resistant containers. They will include measuring devices to assist with accurate dose measurement. Your pharmacist can help you with their use.
The common cold is caused by a virus. It is an infection that will run its course on its own. Cough and cold medications only offer temporary relief from symptoms. The runny nose, cough or nasal congestion will typically clear up in seven to ten days.
Cold symptoms can be managed without medication. Getting more fluid and enough rest is key. Children should drink plenty of liquids so they do not become dehydrated. If your child has pain or fever, use a single-ingredient medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol™) or ibuprofen (Motrin™ or Advil™). For congestion, try saline nose drops, gentle nasal suctioning and a room humidifier.
Some serious illnesses, such as pneumonia, earache and other infections, can look like a cold. It is important to rule these out in babies and young children. If your child’s symptoms get worse, last more than a week, or are accompanied by a fever higher than 38ºC or thick mucus, see your family doctor.
Health Canada’s new rules on cough and cold medications have been put in place to protect children. Try using extra fluids, more rest and single-ingredient pain relievers to help your child combat a cold.