A few simple home remedies, such as using a humidifier, can provide congestion relief for toddlers. In most cases, the common cold causes congestion, but other causes include allergies.
Colds can be a miserable experience for toddlers, and unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colds are common in young children. Because colds are viruses, antibiotics do not have any effect. In most cases, colds eventually go away on their own.
In this article, we discuss nine ways to treat congestions in toddlers, causes of congestion, and when to see a doctor.
There is a range of home remedies that can provide congestion relief for toddlers:
1. Steam inhalation
A warm, steamy room can help loosen thick mucus and make it easier for a child to breathe. Try giving a child a warm bath before bed. Then take the child out of the tub, turn the shower up to its hottest setting, and close the door.
Allow the steam to fill the room while sitting with the child. The room should not be so hot that breathing is difficult.
Make sure the child is not alone with the humidifier and does not treat it as a toy. Keep the humidifier clean, since mold can easily grow in wet spaces.
3. Bulb suction
Very young children may struggle more with congestion because they cannot clear their nose. Try using a bulb suction device to gently clear the child’s nose. If the child resists or says suctioning hurts, try another treatment.
4. Saline nasal sprays
Saline nasal sprays can help soothe an irritated nose. They may also help loosen up thick mucus. Most stores sell over-the-counter (OTC) solutions. Parents can also make their own by combining half a teaspoon of table salt with 1 cup of warm water.
Gently spray into the child’s nose, or show the child how to do it themselves. For more relief, try spraying the nose and then suctioning the nose with a bulb syringe. Parents may also find that saline nasal sprays offer more relief after a child spends time in a steamy room.
5. Chicken soup
Chicken soup is more than just a folk remedy. It may ease congestion by reducing inflammation. Some research suggested that chicken soup may ease inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, which could alleviate cold congestion symptoms.
Additionally, chicken soup can help a child remain hydrated and encourage them to keep eating when they do not feel well.
6. OTC pain relievers
OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, will not relieve congestion, but they may help with other symptoms, such as congestion-related pain in the face, or a fever. Ask a doctor before using these medications in very young children.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in most cases, ibuprofen is safe for children over 6 months, and acetaminophen is safe for children of all ages. Aspirin is not safe for children.
Parents should choose a formula for children and follow the weight-based dosing instructions. If a child younger than 3 months old has a fever, call a pediatrician.
7. Plenty of fluids
Offer a child plenty of water when they are sick. Toddlers may be more willing to drink from a cup that features characters they like or from a silly straw.
8. Changing sleeping position
Congestion often worsens at night. One reason is that the sinuses cannot drain as easily when a person is lying down. Some children may also feel thirsty at night if they are congested and sleep with their mouths open.
Children may prefer sleeping with their heads elevated on a few pillows to ease the symptoms of congestion. Other children may enjoy sleeping in an even more upright position in a recliner.
9. Keeping the air clean
Parents who smoke should not smoke around children, and should not take the child to visit places where there may be smoke.
Although harder to control, air pollution can have a significant impact on children’s health. According to the American Lung Association, children living in areas with cleaner air display fewer respiratory symptoms, such as phlegm, congestion, and coughing.
Parents should not give toddlers OTC decongestants.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise against using decongestants in children under the age of 2 and recommend not using decongestants containing codeine or hydrocodone in anyone under 18.
The AAP emphasize that decongestants offer little or no benefit to children under the age of 4 and may have serious side effects.
Several studies of decongestants in toddlers and young children have found that these drugs offer no more relief than a placebo.
Antibiotics cannot cure a common cold but may help with other infections that can cause congestion, such as a sinus infection. However, sinus infections that require antibiotic treatment are rare in toddlers.
Colds in toddlers may improve in a few days, with congestion lasting longer. If a child’s symptoms worsen, they develop a fever, or their congestion does not improve, see a doctor for treatment.
Sometimes, a person may be unable to tell the difference between colds and other illnesses. Most infections that cause cold-like symptoms are contagious, so parents or caregivers should practice frequent handwashing and other hygiene measures to control the spread of all infections.
Some other potential causes of congestion include:
- Allergies: Allergies may also cause itchy, watery eyes, and do not usually cause a fever.
- Flu: The flu causes cold-like symptoms, though the symptoms tend to be more severe, and a child may be very sick for many days.
- Bacterial infections: A bacterial sinus infection can cause congestion; this could happen after a cold.
- Structural abnormalities: Sometimes, a child has a problem with the structure of their respiratory system. They might have a deviated septum or enlarged adenoids. Children who always seem congested should see a doctor.
See a doctor if:
- A child seems very sick or does not get better within a few days with home remedies.
- A child has a very high fever.
- A child appears lethargic or confused.
- A baby younger than 3 months has a fever.
Most colds go away on their own within 7–10 days, though some symptoms may linger longer than this. If the infection does not go away, see a doctor as the toddler may have an allergy or a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection.
The best way to prevent colds and most other illnesses is with diligent hygiene. This is difficult for toddlers, especially in daycare settings, where they have close contact with other children. Some strategies to prevent the spread of colds include:
- Practicing regular handwashing before meals and after using the bathroom. Make handwashing a fun ritual.
- Not sending a child who is unwell to school or daycare and not allowing people to visit who are sick.
- Teaching children to cover their cough by coughing into an elbow.
- Disinfecting frequently used surfaces, such as doorknobs, countertops, sink handles, and toilet flushers.
The average toddler gets a lot of colds — as many as 8–10 per year before they turn 2 years old. Parents can experiment with home remedies until they find something that works and that a child is willing to try. Consult a pediatrician for more advice about home remedies that may ease the specific symptoms a child gets.