9 Safe Alternatives for Treating Children’s Cold Symptoms

Your child is congested and miserable, but headlines are reporting unsafe cold and flu medicines. Use these simple, doctor-approved remedies to ease your baby or toddler’s symptoms.

Young children’s developing immune systems require special care, and major drug makers have recently reconsidered what is deemed safe for these little bodies. In response to concerns over medicine misuse and accidental overdose, multiple OTC cold and flu relief products for babies and toddlers have been pulled off the market and medical organizations are recommending against giving any cough or cold medicines to children under age 6.

But with treatment options now limited, what’s a parent to do when the inevitable case of runny nose, chest congestion, and hacking cough strikes? Three pediatricians—Dr. Henry Bernstein, MD, Chief of General Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire; Dr. Kelly Miller, MD, a practicing pediatrician from Newark, New Jersey; and Dr. James Sears, MD, pediatrician and co-author of The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood—offer the following safe and effective methods to relieve your child’s cough and cold symptoms, without depending on powerful medicines.

Note: These are general recommendations for treating common cold symptoms and are not intended to substitute for advice from your child’s own pediatrician.

Bulb Syringe

Treats: Stuffy, runny noses

Why use a bulb syringe? Most parents find that holding a tissue to Baby’s congested nose just sets off an impromptu game of peek-a-boo. Most children are not developmentally capable of blowing their noses until around age two, so until your baby responds when you say, “Blow!”, you’ll need to find alternative remedies to treat nasal congestion. For very young babies, an infant-size nasal bulb syringe works well to relieve a stuffy, runny nose.

How to use it: First, cradle your baby in a semi-upright position, making sure his head is well-supported. Squeeze the bulb and gently place the rubber tip into one nostril. Slowly release the bulb—the suction produced will draw the clogged mucus out of his nose. Because an older baby might bat the syringe away or jerk his or her head, experts agree that this method usually works best in infants younger than 6 months.

Keep in mind: “Use the bulb syringe only when your baby’s nose is so clogged that he or she is having trouble sucking to drink or is having difficulty falling asleep,” advises Dr. Miller. “Basically you are blowing the baby’s nose when you use a bulb syringe, and you could do it all day long and end up with a cranky baby who has a really sore nose.” To avoid irritation, Dr. Miller recommends squeezing a few drops of saline into your baby’s nose before inserting the bulb syringe.

Saline Drops

Treats: Stuffy, runny noses; dried nasal mucus

Why use saline drops? Saline solution is about to become your new best friend during sniffles season: This deceptively simple combination of salt and water soothes inflamed nasal tissue, thins and loosens nasal mucus (especially the dry, crusty variety), and gives stuffy, congested little noses a chance to drain. Administering saline drops also provides relief for irritated nasal passageways—and those nasty nosebleeds—caused by the dry air of the winter home-heating months. When buying saline drops, make sure to choose a brand that does not contain added cold medication.

How to use them: To apply saline drops, cradle your child in a reclined position, with her head supported and tilted back at a slight angle. Gently squirt two to three drops of saline into each nostril (avoid touching the dropper to the nose to prevent contamination). Continue holding your baby for a few moments to help the saline become fully absorbed.

Return your baby to a sitting position and let gravity assist in drawing the nasal mucus out. For young infants with very congested nasal passageways, experts recommend following up saline treatment with suctioning from a bulb syringe. If your child is between 6 months and 2 years old, saline may be all you need. Within minutes of applying the drops, you will likely hear your child snort or sneeze to clear the nostrils of the saline solution, getting rid of mucus in the process.

Keep in mind: While saline drops do a great job at temporarily relieving your child’s nasal congestion, saline and other cold remedies treat only the symptoms of the cold and do not shorten the life of the viral infection itself. “During the typical cold or upper respiratory infection, nasal discharge begins as a clear, runny nose. Over the next few days, mucus secretions thicken and turn from clear to white or yellowish-green in color. By day seven, discharge lightens and finally clears up about 10 to 14 days after symptoms first started,” explains Dr. Bernstein.

Bottom line? Even if you start saline drops at the first sign of a runny nose, you can still expect your child’s cold to last anywhere up to two weeks.

Cool Mist Humidifiers

Treats: Nasal and chest congestion; cough

Why use humidifiers? “Humid air is a great natural decongestant during the overnight hours,” says Dr. Miller. Cool mist humidifiers moisten dry winter air, and breathing this in works to soothe wheezy coughs, clears your child’s nasal passages, and loosens mucus in his lungs. Running a humidifier in your child’s room overnight may help your sick baby finally get some much-needed rest.

How to use humidifiers: First, shop for a room-size home humidifier. There are two main kinds:

  • Hot water vaporizers are humidifiers that releases steam heat. Steam vaporizers tend to be lower in price, and most come equipped with a device to add menthol vapors to the warm mist. The big downside for steam vaporizers is the risk that hot water and steam could accidentally burn your child.
  • “A cool mist humidifier is the safest choice to leave in a child’s room overnight. You don’t need to add anything to the humidifier but cool water for it to work,” says Dr. Miller.

For best humidifier results, fill the reservoir tank according to manufacturer’s instructions and place the unit on the floor or other hard surface. Begin running the humidifier at least an hour before bedtime and periodically check the tank’s water level; refill as necessary.

Keep in mind: Water left sitting in cool mist humidifiers often leads to mold and bacteria growth in the unit. Re-starting a mold-contaminated humidifier could send spores of bacteria into the air. To prevent bacteria from taking hold, clean and disinfect the reservoir tank on a regular basis (according to the manufacturer’s directions) and never leave water sitting in the humidifier when it is not running. In addition to these steps, Dr. Miller recommends spraying the unit with a hydrogen peroxide and water solution once a week while in use.

Shower Steam Room

Treats: Nasal and chest congestion; wheezy or croupy coughs

Why use steam? “Give your child steam, steam, and more steam!” urges Dr. Sears. “Sitting near the steamy blast of a hot shower will loosen your baby’s nose and chest congestion, and help your child cough it up or blow it out.” Shower steam is also recognized as an effective treatment for infant croup.

How to use it:: To relieve congestion symptoms in infants and young children, turn the bathroom into a steam room by closing the bathroom door and turning the shower on full hot. Securely hold your baby well away from any contact with the scalding water and never leave your baby unattended.

“Sit there for 10 or 15 minutes,” advises Dr. Sears. After your baby is comfortable, try clapping on your child’s chest and back (where the lungs are) with an open hand. The clapping motion should be a bit firmer than burping. According to Dr. Sears, “this technique helps shake the mucus loose so your child can cough it up better.”

Keep in mind: It’s OK to rely on this regularly during the sick season. “Do ‘steam cleaning’ every morning and before bed, as well as during the day, if possible,” says Dr. Sears.

Menthol and Eucalyptus Vapors

Treats: Chest and sinus congestion; cough

Why use vapors? Your congested baby will breathe a little easier when the scent of menthol or eucalyptus is in the air. The soothing vapors of these plant-based essential oils (menthol is made from peppermint leaves) open the body’s air passageways by triggering blood vessels to dilate. Eucalyptus oil is thought by many to possess expectorant qualities, meaning that breathing in eucalyptus vapors might make it easier for your child to cough up loosened mucus.

How to use them: Gently applying a petroleum-based menthol chest rub or adding liquid menthol to a steam vaporizer are tried-and-true vapor remedies. Twenty-first century vapor products include eucalyptus-scented baby bath products and small waterless vaporizers that heat essential oil-soaked pads to distill the soothing aroma throughout your child’s room.

But no matter which remedy you choose, carefully observe how your baby reacts whenever you use a vapor treatment. “Occasionally, the vapors may be too strong for some children, but overall they work well,” says Dr. Sears. Discontinue using any product that causes wheezing in your child—a sign that the vapors are too strong.

Keep in mind: Stay calm if your baby remains congested, despite your best efforts with vapor or other congestion remedies. “I try to remind parents that noisy breathing probably bothers them a lot more than it does the child, and as long as the child is content and feeding well, the less intervention the better,” says Dr. Miller.

Increased Fluid Intake

Treats: Congestion; dehydration

Why increase fluids: Drinking lots of fluids (breastmilk, formula, cow’s milk, water, and broth) thins mucus secretions and keeps your baby hydrated and better-equipped to fight off germs and infection.

How much is enough? “Encourage your child to drink twice as much as usual,” recommends Dr. Sears. For breastfeeding moms, offer the breast more that you normally would and nurse for as long as your baby desires. If you use formula, supplement with a bottle of water between feedings.

Your sick baby may eat more slowly and have trouble sucking due to nasal congestion. To ease breathing at feeding time, try draining the nose first with a bulb syringe or saline drops.

Keep in mind: If your toddler is accustomed to drinking cow’s milk, don’t hold back on this fluid because you’ve heard cow’s milk causes the body to step up mucus production. “This is a myth,” says Dr. Bernstein. For a sick toddler not eating very much food, milk is a nourishing alternative. It hydrates the body with much-needed fluids and also provides calories, protein, fat, and some vitamins and minerals.


Treats: Fever; aches and pains

Is acetaminophen safe? While cold and cough medications are now off-limits, all three pediatricians still recommend Tylenol—or the generic store version of acetaminophen—to comfort babies who are running a fever. (Why? Acetaminophen is a single active ingredient; the recalled medicines had many.) Acetaminophen also helps relieve the usual aches and pains associated with colds, congestion, and flu.

How to use it: Don’t just rely on label directions: Ask your pediatrician about the proper amount of acetaminophen to give your child—dosages are based on a child’s age and size. Precisely measure the dosage using the medicine dropper or cup that came with the medication. Also find out from your child’s pediatrician the correct number of dosages to administer in a 24-hour period. Don’t deviate from this schedule: Accidental overdoses may occur if you decide to give your baby the medication every two hours instead of every four to six.

Keep in mind: “It’s normal for a fever to accompany a cold virus. Fever simply shows that the body is fighting off infection,” says Dr. Bernstein. While fever in itself is usually not dangerous, the experts stress that if your child keeps getting fevers more than 103 degrees for more than three days, it would be prudent to take him to the pediatrician to be sure there are no bacterial complications. “It could still just be the cold virus, but it is better not to go more than three days with such a high fever without seeing a doctor,” Dr. Sears advises.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Treats: Congestion; sore throat; lethargy

Does it really work? Chicken soup is the ultimate folk remedy for the common cold. With several research studies published on the effectiveness of the soup to relieve congestion and other cold symptoms, giving a bowl of chicken soup to your child also gets a thumbs-up from the medical community. “Yes, I recommend keeping children with colds well hydrated. Lots of liquids, even chicken soup, are good for them,” says Dr. Bernstein.

Homemade or from a can? Whether it’s the steam and soothing aroma of the warm soup, the added fluids, or the nutritious combination of chicken, veggies, and broth, why chicken soup works so well to relieve congestion and “perk up” a sick child is still a mystery. Medical researchers, however, are certain about one thing: Cold symptoms respond to both homemade soup and prepared chicken soup. This is great news if, in the middle of caring for a sick child, you don’t feel like spending lots of time in the kitchen cooking—canned soup works just as well.

Keep in mind: Only give chicken soup to babies and toddlers who already eat solid foods. If your baby eats mainly pureed food, puree the soup before serving. Heat the soup until it is very warm, but not hot, to avoid the risk of burning Baby’s tongue or throat. If your toddler is a very picky eater and refuses chicken soup, Dr. Bernstein recommends offering warm tea (try chamomile or peppermint) as a soothing alternative.

Comfort and TLC

Treats: Everything!

How to administer: When caring for a sick baby, put extra effort into comforting your child and making her feel cared for and loved. Experts agree that positive parental attention distracts a child from the aggravation of a stuffy nose or congested chest. Creating a peaceful atmosphere also helps your baby to relax and rest. “I always tell parents that their time and attention are very important in caring and comforting their child who has a cold,” explains Dr. Bernstein.

Try cuddling in bed and reading stories together until your child drifts off to sleep. Temporarily move your baby’s crib into your bedroom so you are within arm’s reach when coughing wakens your little one during the night. Relax the TV rules a bit with your toddler and snuggle on the couch watching a movie or favorite show. These are all simple tactics, but a little comfort and TLC go a long way in helping your child feel well again.

Keep in mind: If job duties make it difficult for you to stay home from work several days in a row to care for your child, alternate days off from work with your partner. Grandmothers seem genetically wired to care for sick babies, but before you let grandma (or grandpa) come over to nurse your child back to health, experts recommend you make sure older caregivers have had an annual flu shot.

When to See the Doctor

Of course it’s OK to contact your doctor whenever you’re worried about your child’s health, but these are signs you should certainly have your child checked out:

  • Prolonged or severe throat pain
  • Ear pain, or tugging at the ears in a young child
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Very congested cough
  • High fever (>102) that does not go down after taking fever-reducing medicine
  • Extreme lethargy that goes beyond a sick child’s just wanting to rest
  • Difficulty breathing

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