Cough and colds in babies and young children

There are several hundred viruses that cause the common cold. The symptoms include runny or stuffy nose, mild cough, and low-grade fever for a few days. Babies and toddlers with colds may be less hungry, but still manage to drink well and recover fully.

A cold is spread through respiratory droplets directly by sneezing and coughing. These viruses can also spread indirectly by touching an infected surface and then placing your hand close to your face without first washing it.

Treating colds and coughs

There is no specific treatment, as colds usually go away on their own. The basic approach includes a humidifier (I prefer cold air mists), drinking plenty of fluids, and for younger children, helping wash out the congested nose with a nose pump and saline (saltwater) drops. In most situations, these simple techniques, combined with tender loving care, do the trick.

Cough and cold syrups: important information

Over-the-counter cold and cough preparations are not recommended for children under six years of age.

Recent studies have shown that giving cough/cold syrups improperly, or in higher than recommended doses can actually be quite dangerous. This applies to all OTC medications, of which cold and cough preparations are among the most commonly used.

In addition, children who accidently get into the medicine cabinet can easily overdose on these medications. As a sidebar: please ensure that ALL medications are safely stored and locked out of the reach of young children.

Generally, all brands contain the following ingredients: DM or “Dextromethorphan,” a cough suppressant, “D”, which represents a decongestant, and “E”, for an expectorant (something that helps bring up chest secretions). These are available in different combinations, and in different forms, ranging from syrup to pill forms:

• Preparations referred to as “DM” only contain a cough suppressant

• “DM-D” preparations contain both a cough suppressant and decongestant

• “DM-D-E” contain all three: a cough suppressant, a decongestant and an expectorant

If you are going to be using these medications in older children, I recommend not using combination preparations. Why? Because it does not make sense to give an expectorant, for example, at the same time as a cough suppressant. Bringing up secretions causes a cough reflex, allowing us to clear the secretions out. Giving a cough suppressant at the same time makes no sense.

However if an older child (depending on age, of course) requires treatment, a DM (cough) preparation may be helpful only if he/she is made uncomfortable by the cough — that is, waking up at night or not being able to sleep. If these medicines are necessary, please use them carefully. Your doctor or pharmacist can give you more details relating to your particular situation.

Please note that the fever will not respond to these types of medicines. Only fever medications containing acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tempra) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help bring down a fever.

However, fever medication cannot help with cold symptoms such as congestion and cough. Also, in general, cough or cold medications should not be given to persons with asthma or other chronic lung problems. If your child has asthma, talk to your doctor about what to do during a cold.

Pediatrician and health communications pioneer Dr. Paul Roumeliotis has produced of hundreds of articles, booklets and videos on a variety of child health issues. His highly acclaimed, groundbreaking book for parents focusing on the importance of the first 18 months of life, Baby Come Home, was released early in 2015 and is an Amazon bestseller. Visit and follow Dr. Paul on Twitter:@thedrpaul.