Many cough medicines are not safe or suitable for toddlers. Instead, parents and caregivers can use gentle home remedies to help relieve cough symptoms.

In toddlers who are 1–3 years old, having a cough can cause discomfort, sleepless nights, and missed activities.

Most children experience a cough at some point, and parents and caregivers may not know how to safely treat their symptoms. However, gentle home remedies can help.

This article outlines some common causes of cough in children. It also lists three effective home remedies for coughs in toddlers and offers advice on when to seek medical care for them.

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There are two main types of cough: dry and wet. Dry coughs usually arise due to irritation in the upper airways, such as the throat and sinuses. Wet coughs are typically the result of irritation and associated mucus buildup in the lower airways within the lungs.

Coughs generally have four classifications:

Cough typeCommon causes
Stridor, a high-pitched whistling during inhalationCroup, which refers to infection and swelling of the upper airways, including the voice box and windpipe.
WheezingAsthma, a condition that involves swelling and narrowing of the airways. Symptoms typically include wheezing and a dry cough.
Choking followed by a dry cough or cold symptomsA foreign body blocking the airways. A choking episode followed by a persistent dry cough may indicate the presence of a foreign body in the airways.
Wet coughViral infections, which are more common in the winter months.

Cigarette smoke, air pollution, and other irritants may produce a wet cough year-round. Irritants may trigger the gag reflex, which can result in vomiting.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend OTC cough and cold medications for children below the age of 2 years. This is due to the risk of potentially life threatening side effects. Most manufacturers provide warnings not to use their cough and cold products on children under 4 years of age.

OTC cough medications may be especially harmful to children if they:

  • take too much of the medication
  • take the medication too often
  • take other medications with the same active ingredients
  • take medications containing codeine, as this drug can cause respiratory distress and other serious adverse events

The FDA also notes that such medications will not change the natural course of a cold or affect its duration. For these reasons, they recommend people turn to home remedies to alleviate cough in infants and children.

Aside from the fact that OTC cough medications can cause adverse events in children, there is inconclusive evidence regarding their usefulness.

A 2017 review investigated the safety and efficacy of medical and nonmedical interventions for cough relating to the common cold. The review concluded that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that taking cough medications reduces the severity or duration of a cough.

According to the FDA, home remedies are likely to be a safer and more effective method for alleviating cough symptoms in children.

Below are some home remedies for cough in toddlers. However, not all these options are safe for young children. Therefore, caregivers should always check with a healthcare professional before administering home remedies to a child.

Honey

A 2018 review notes that honey has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. All of these may alleviate cough symptoms.

However, honey and products containing honey are not suitable for children under 12 months of age. This is due to the risk of a serious and potentially life threatening condition called infant botulism. However, they are suitable for older toddlers to relieve cough symptoms.

Another 2018 study compared the effects of honey with other treatments, including medications, cough suppressants, a placebo, and no treatment. It found that the substance was more effective in relieving cough symptoms than diphenhydramine and no treatment. It was also similarly effective to dextromethorphan. With regard to shortening the duration of cough symptoms, honey appeared more effective than both placebo and salbutamol.

The authors concluded that there was no strong evidence for or against using honey to treat cough.

Although OTC cough products can cause serious side effects, children older than 1 year tend to tolerate honey well. However, in rare cases, honey can cause stomachache, nausea, or vomiting.

Liquids and humidity

Caregivers should try to ensure that children remain hydrated since water helps thin mucus in the airways, making it easier and less painful to cough up.

A cool mist humidifier also helps moisten the airways and loosen mucus secretions. However, the FDA warns against using warm mist humidifiers as these can cause swelling of the nasal passages, which may worsen breathing difficulties.

Keeping a cool mist humidifier in the toddler’s room may be a simple and noninvasive method to help ease their cough symptoms.

Caregivers should speak with a doctor if the child displays any of the following symptoms:

Caregivers should seek immediate medical attention for a child who displays any of the following symptoms of breathing difficulty:

  • difficulty breathing when not coughing
  • pulling in of the ribs when breathing in
  • wheezing or a harsh sound when breathing
  • blue discoloration of the lips or face during coughing
  • severe chest pain

Caregivers should call emergency services right away if a child displays signs of severe respiratory distress, such as:

  • severe breathing difficulty
  • blue discoloration of the face or lips when not coughing
  • unconsciousness, or absence of breathing

Many experts do not recommend OTC cough and cold medicines to treat cough in toddlers and young children due to the risk of serious adverse effects.

The FDA recommends home remedies to help alleviate cough in children. Caregivers can consider options, such as honey for infants over the age of 12 months. Fluids and humidifiers may be a suitable remedy for children of all ages.

Caregivers should seek medical attention for a child who displays persistent or worsening cough or other concerning symptoms.