Cough and cold medicines – children

Key points about cough and cold medicines for children

  • Cough and cold medicines help reduce the symptoms of the common cold, such as runny nose and cough. They don't cure the condition.
  • These medicines can cause serious side effects in young children.
  • Find out how to use them safely and possible side effects.
blue unaunahi tile generic
Print this page

Coughs and colds are common in children, but what medicines can be given?

Cough and cold medicines help reduce the symptoms of the common cold, such as runny nose and cough. They don't cure any infection. These medicines can cause serious side effects in young children. To avoid harm follow this advice:

  • over-the-counter cough and cold preparations are not recommended for children under 6 years of age
  • only those labelled as safe for children should be given to children 6 years of age and older.

The information on this page is for cough and cold medicines for children. For information for adults, see our pages on cough medicines for adults and cold and flu medicines for adults.

Image credit: 123RF

See your doctor if your child has the following symptoms
  • sore throat
  • is not breathing easily
  • has a cough that has lasted longer than 4 weeks
  • you are worried they're not getting better. 

Medsafe, a unit of Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora, has assessed the safety and effectiveness of cough and cold medicines in children. They have advised the following:

Children aged 6 years or younger

Decongestant nasal sprays: Medsafe recommends that parents and carers should not use decongestant nasal sprays or drops that contain oxymetazoline and xylometazoline for children aged under the age of 2 years. Examples include Otrivin®, Drixine®, Sudafed®, Vicks®. 

Cough and cold medicines: Medsafe recommends that parents and carers should not use over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for children aged under 6 years. This is because there's no evidence that cough and cold medicines work in children. There is also a risk of serious side effects, such as abnormal heart rate, allergic reactions and reduced consciousness in children. Also, there is a greater risk of accidental overdose so cold and cough medicines may cause more harm than good in young children.

Medicines containing the following ingredients should not be used in children under 6 years of age
  • guaifenesin
  • phenylephrine
  • doxylamine
  • ipecacuanha
  • brompheniramine
  • promethazine
  • dextromethorphan
  • chlorpheniramine
  • triprolidine
  • pholcodine
  • diphenhydramine

Note: Paracetamol and ibuprofen are not classed as cough and cold medicines and can still be given to children.

Children between 6 and 12 years of age

For children aged between 6 and 12 years, cough and cold medicines can be used, as there's less risk of serious side effects in older children. However, for this age group they are only available from pharmacies and should be given following the advice of a pharmacist.

Treatment Description
Paracetamol Is commonly known as Pamol, Panadol or Parapaed.
  • It can be used for the treatment of pain or if your child has a fever (temperature over 38.5°C) and is miserable.
  • Read more about paracetamol in children.
Saline (salt water) nasal spray or nasal drops Can be helpful for clearing blocked noses.
  • Using a few drops of salt water (saline) into the nose just before feeds is a popular option for treating a blocked nose in babies. 
  • Some people feel that this helps to clear the nose to make feeding easier. However, there is little scientific evidence as to how well this works.
  • You can buy saline products from pharmacies.
  • Alternatively, you can make a salt solution at home — make sure you use the correct amount of salt and water. 
  • Read more about saline drops and sprays.
Honey Honey can act to soothe the throat.
  • It can be given on a teaspoon or given as a warm honey and lemon drink.
  • Lozenges are not recommended in children due to the risk of choking.
  • Honey is not recommended in children under the 1 year of age because of the risk of causing infant botulism. Read more about botulism(external link)

If your child has a cough or cold, encourage rest and give lots to drink. If your child has a sore throat, see your doctor or nurse in case they need antibiotics or a throat swab.

Note: The use of chest rubs and vapouriser fluids are no longer recommended because they don’t have any proven benefit AND can be poisonous. They can make young children very sick if they swallow them. Read more about vapour rubs and vapouriser fluids.

Help tamariki to stay healthy and fight off colds and other illnesses by:

  • making sure your house is warm and dry
  • keeping your home smokefree – breathing second-hand cigarette smoke increases the risk of asthma, chest infections, ear infections and many other health problems in children.
  • dressing them warmly
  • feeding them nourishing food.
  • using good hygiene practices, eg, washing hands and covering the mouth and nose with a tissue during coughs and sneezes.

Free helplines

Healthline logo

Text 1737 Helpline logo

Logo with link to Māori Pharmacists website

Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

Last reviewed:

Page last updated: