Natural, Doctor-Approved Ways to Treat Kids' Colds Without OTC Meds

Patient Expert

Thanks to the FDA, I now have a clutter-free, neatly organized medicine cabinet for the first time since stockpiling it for the arrival of twin babies. It's amazing how much stuff you can fit (aka "cram") into a tiny medicine closet. Now I'm left like many parents, smack in the middle of cold and flu season with the newfound knowledge that not only are over-the-counter cold and cough medicines not even effective for children under two, they're potentially dangerous.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,500 babies and toddlers have wound up in emergency rooms over the past two years after having a bad reaction to cold medicines. In 2007, the FDA found 54 reported child deaths from decongestants and 69 child deaths from antihistamines from 1969 and fall 2006, most involving children under 2. In 2007, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, petitioned the FDA to end the use of nonprescription cold remedies by children under 6, a move backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. While the official FDA ruling won't come until March 2008 as to whether these medicines are dangerous for kids ages 2 to 11, I'm not taking any chances with my five-year-olds. Thus began the Purge-o-thon.

Good-bye sticky, half-finished bottle of grape Robitussin! Sayonara to its bubble gum-flavored replacement, purchased in a late night frenzy when my son turned his nose up at the grape. While excited over the prospect of having more storage space, I'm also left with a few unsettling questions: Can I really trust the FDA to tell me anything regarding my kids' health or my own? What do I do when my kids get a miserable cold and need some relief? Without OTCs, What's Left Besides TLC?

Dr. Neil Schachter, author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu, shares some sound advice on safe, natural ways to offer kids some relief. Incidentally, he fully supports the FDA's decision to avoid the use of OTC cold and flu remedies for children, explaining that, "They were not effective and caused additional problems, but they gave parents the sense they were helping their children." (Oh yes, parental guilt. I know it well.)

Here are Dr. Schachter's natural remedies:

Fighting Congestion

Use steam. "Turn on the shower and allow the steam to build up," he explains. "Carry your child into the steamy bathroom and let the humidity and warmth open the airways, being careful that small children don't touch the hot water or pipes. Keep them in the bathroom for 5 to 10 minutes," which should do the trick.

Feed a Cold the Right Way

It's important to keep pushing fluids -- as much as your child will take - steering clear of sugary drinks (sugar can depress the immune system). Smoothies made with fresh berries are good, as are warm teas, broths, and chicken soup. "Yes, chicken soup really does help," says Dr. Schachter, who has the science to back up the claim. "In addition to providing nutrition, fluids, and mucus-dissolving warmth, chicken soup actually reduces the inflammatory compounds that rise with a cold and flu, called cytkines, which trigger body aches, fever, and fatigue. Studies have actually shown that chicken soup inhibits the release of neutrophils, thus reducing the discomfort of a respiratory infection." And the best part: The soup doesn't even have to be homemade to work!

To Humidify or Not, That Is the Question

While many people use a humidifier to relieve congestion, Dr. Schachter favors other alternatives. He explains, "Humidifiers tend to accumulate mold, which is then sprayed into the air in the home. Instead, I recommend humidifying the body internally with fluids and using steamy bathrooms to relieve congestion. I also am concerned that humidifiers increase the number of dust mites, which are linked to asthma." The ideal range for humidity in the home is between 40% and 50%. Dr. Schachter suggests using a hygrometer to measure humidity in your home. Higher levels increase the growth of mold and dust mites, and lower levels can dry out the airways, making them more vulnerable to infection.

Quieting a Cough

A recent study, aided by a grant from the National Honey Board, shows that buckwheat honey is an effective cough suppressor (Never give honey to children under one year old; it can cause infant botulism, a rare but serious form of food poisoning). Researchers divided 100 children with colds into three groups: One group was given honey before bed; another group was given a cough syrup containing dextromethorphan; and the third group was given nothing. The next day, according to parents surveyed, the honey was more effective than the cough medicine, for reasons unknown.


When to Call the Doctor

When in doubt, always call your doctor. Dr. Schachter advises that parents go to the pediatrician when:

  • A child under 12 months old is congested
  • Children have a fever over 100 F, cough, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Your child has an underlying health problem, such as asthma or diabetes
  • The cold lingers more than a week and coughing continues

Think you have all the facts about the cold and its treatment? Take our quiz and find out:  Can you Bust the 8 Top Cold and Flu Myths?

Cold Medicine Tip from Allison:

If you feel the need to purge or peruse your medicine cabinet, here are the following over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products that, according to the FDA, should not be used to treat infants and children less than 2 years of age because serious and potentially life-threatening side effects can occur. OTC cough and cold products include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives (cough suppressants) for the treatment of colds.

Dimetapp(R) Decongestant Plus Cough Infant Drops,

Dimetapp(R) Decongestant Infant Drops,

Little Colds(R) Decongestant Plus Cough,

Little Colds(R) Multi-Symptom Cold Formula,

PEDIACARE(R) Infant Drops Decongestant (containing pseudoephedrine),

PEDIACARE(R) Infant Drops Decongestant & Cough (containing pseudoephedrine),

PEDIACARE(R) Infant Dropper Decongestant (containing phenylephrine),

PEDIACARE(R) Infant Dropper Long-Acting Cough,

PEDIACARE(R) Infant Dropper Decongestant & Cough (containing phenylephrine),

Robitussin(R) Infant Cough DM Drops,

Triaminic(R) Infant & Toddler Thin Strips(R) Decongestant,

Triaminic(R) Infant & Toddler Thin Strips(R) Decongestant Plus Cough,

TYLENOL(R) Concentrated Infants' Drops Plus Cold,

TYLENOL(R) Concentrated Infants' Drops Plus Cold & Cough