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Many cough medicines are not safe or suitable for toddlers to use. Instead, caregivers can use gentle home remedies to help relieve cough symptoms.
In toddlers (1–3 years old), having a cough from a common cold can cause sleepless nights and missed school or activities. On average, young children in the United States get around six to eight colds per year, and most symptoms last for around 7–10 days.
In children over the age of 1, honey can ease a cough. Some evidence suggests that ivy extracts can also help. Keeping toddlers hydrated and using mentholated rubs can also ease coughs.
This article will review the research behind four effective home remedies to treat a toddler’s cough. It will also provide information on when to use them.
Although older children can use over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicine, such products may not be safe for children under the age of 2.
Caregivers should only start to give toddlers these medicines when they are 2 years or older, and only as a doctor directs.
According to American Family Physician, “in 2004 and 2005 an estimated 1,519 children younger than 2 years were treated in U.S. emergency departments for adverse events associated with use of cough and cold medications.”
Aside from the fact that they can cause adverse events in children, there is mixed evidence regarding whether or not OTC cough medicines are effective at all.
A Cochrane review found no quality evidence for or against the use of OTC medicines to treat cough in children or adults. Likewise, the Cough Expert Panel claims that no studies into antihistamines, decongestants, or pain relievers in children have demonstrated efficacy.
The Cough Expert Panel also suggests that honey is more effective than no treatment, but that honey is no more effective than dextromethorphan for reducing cough due to the common cold.
Another Cochrane review has suggested that antihistamines may not improve the severity of cold symptoms in children.
In the sections below, we list some effective home remedies for toddler cough. Not all home remedies are safe for toddlers, so caregivers should always check with a healthcare provider before trying home remedies in children.
For older toddlers, honey works by thinning congestion and loosening a cough. People can give a toddler aged 1 or over a spoonful of honey, as needed, to relieve cough symptoms.
The Cough Expert Panel says that honey may be better than an antihistamine (diphenhydramine) or no treatment for coughs. Honey’s effects are likely similar to those of dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) in improving the severity of cough and quality of sleep.
One 2018 review has reported that honey probably shortens the duration of cough, relieves cough symptoms, improves sleep for both child and caregivers, lowers the severity of cough symptoms, and reduces how often cough occurs.
Whereas OTC cough products can cause serious side effects, children tend to tolerate honey well. However, in rare cases, it can cause stomachache, nausea, or vomiting.
Note that children under the age of 1 should not take honey products. This is because there is a risk of developing infant botulism.
People can use ivy syrup or ivy cough drops to relieve cough in toddlers. Ivy leaf may work by opening air passages and loosening congestion by stimulating watery secretions in the airways.
The Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products recognize ivy leaf (Hedera helix) as a possible treatment for congestion and coughs. People should only give it to toddlers over the age of 2. Cough medicines can worsen breathing symptoms in children under the age of 2.
One study has suggested that ivy leaf extracts were effective treatments for children’s cough. At the start of treatment, 51% of children had a strong cough. After 4–7 days, 5% still had a strong cough. After 8–14 days of treatment, less than 2% still had a strong cough, and 46% had no cough.
Caregivers should try to make sure that children remain hydrated, since water helps the body thin the congestion, making it easier and less painful for them to cough.
Humidifiers and warm showers can keep the airways moist, making it easier to cough up congestion. Keeping a humidifier in the toddler’s room may be a simple and noninvasive method to help ease their cough symptoms.
People can use mentholated rubs for toddlers aged 2 and over. A caregiver can rub a thick layer onto the toddler’s chest and the front of their neck.
The medication evaporates into the air, allowing the child to breathe it in and sooth cough symptoms. Mentholated rubs also help children sleep.
Use mentholated rubs on skin and store containers out of children’s reach.
According to Seattle Children’s Hospital, caregivers should call the child’s pediatrician for the following symptoms:
- nonstop coughing
- trouble breathing when not coughing
- the skin between their ribs is pulling in with each breath
- wheezing or a harsh sound when breathing
- their lips or face have turned bluish while coughing
- severe chest pain
- coughing up blood
- a fever of over 104°F (40°C)
Shop for cough remedies
People can buy most of the remedies listed here from a drugstore or a grocery store. Otherwise, they can choose from a range of products online:
Many experts do not recommend antibiotics or OTC cough and cold medicines for the treatment of cough symptoms for toddlers due to the risk of possible side effects.
Home remedies such as honey, ivy extract, fluids, humidifiers, and mentholated rubs may help more than OTC medicines. These remedies are unlikely to cause serious side effects.