Children’s colds: what works?

According to a review of trials of over-the-counter cold treatments published in the British Medical Journal, while adults get two to four colds a year, children can have up to eight.

The review aims to help people decide which cold treatments are effective – and which aren’t. So if you’re a parent, here’s a run-down of what the researchers discovered…

Decongestants – According to the report there’s no evidence that decongestants are effective in children. Indeed, along with other cough and cold remedies they should not be given to children under the age of six, and should be given with caution to children under 12. That’s because in children these medicines can cause adverse effects such as drowsiness or gastrointestinal upset.

In adults, however, there is evidence that using decongestants alone or alongside other medicines such as antihistamines or painkillers may help relieve nasal symptoms when taken for a maximum of three to seven days. But long-term use of decongestants can lead to chronic nasal congestion, which is difficult to treat. Decongestants are also unsuitable for pregnant women.

Saline nasal irritation – Found in drops and sprays and sold at pharmacies, these use a saltwater solution to reduce mucous and nasal inflammation and are safe for use in children with no known side effects. According to the report, saline nasal irrigation is the only treatment found to have a small or possible beneficial effect on children’s nasal congestion symptoms.

Pain relief – Paracetamol and anti-inflammatory drugs can help relieve pain, but they don’t have any effect on nasal congestion or a runny nose, the report suggests. Paracetamol may also be useful for treating a high temperature.

Home remedies – According to the report there’s a lack of research into whether or not many home remedies work. The following, however, have been found to be ineffective for colds or haven’t been studied in children:

  • Heated humidified air
  • Humidified steam
  • Echinacea
  • Ginseng
  • Chinese medicinal herbs
  • Probiotics
  • Eucalyptus oil

It’s also worth remembering that antibiotics are not a suitable treatment for colds, as colds are caused by viruses (antibiotics only work against bacterial infections).

How your pharmacist can help

While the report found most cold remedies aren’t effective for children, it did add that there’s a lack of studies into whether over-the-counter treatments work for nasal symptoms. So with that in mind, the best person to speak to about treating your little one’s cold is your local Careway pharmacist.

Your pharmacist can advise you that most children with a cold get better in five to seven days, but small children can have symptoms for up to two weeks. Meanwhile, the NHS has the following advice to help you ease your child’s cold symptoms:

  • Make sure they drink plenty of fluids.
  • Try saline nose drops to relieve a stuffy nose.
  • Give them children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen if they have a fever, pain or discomfort (always check with your pharmacist before giving a child these medicines, as they are not suitable for everyone, and always follow the instructions on the packet).
  • Try to make sure everyone in your family washes their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.

There shouldn’t be any need to take a child to see their GP for a cold. However if any of the following apply, ask your GP or your local pharmacist for advice:

  • They’ve had a sore throat for more than four days, a high temperature and are generally unwell.
  • They’ve had a cough that’s lasted longer than three weeks, or they have a cough with a very high temperature (or they feel hot and shivery).
  • They have a cough that’s worse at night or is brought on when they run about (this could be a sign of asthma).
  • They’ve had an ear infection that has lasted longer than a few weeks.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.