By Raising Children Network
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  • A-Z Health Reference
    Get the facts on over 100 illnesses and health conditions which can affect babies and young children.A-Z Health Reference

When your child is feeling unwell, there’s only one thing you want to do – make him feel better as soon as possible. But it can be hard to know what medications to give children and when.

Children and medications

Children’s small bodies are very sensitive to medicine, and they need medications that have been specifically designed for their size and their needs. Adult medications aren’t suitable for children.

It’s recommended that you see a doctor before giving a baby under six months any medication.

Pain and fever medications

Paracetamol is often used to relieve pain or to lower a child’s fever.

A high fever can make your child irritable, so you can sometimes use medication to lower her temperature if she’s really uncomfortable. But if your child has a fever, her body is probably fighting an infection, and medicine might slow down this process.

It’s also important to monitor other symptoms, such as vomiting and coughing, rather than just looking at your child’s temperature.

Paracetamol is safe if you follow the recommended doses, but an overdose can cause liver failure. 

Paracetamol for children comes in different strengths and varieties, so read the label and follow the instructions carefully. Make sure you give your child the right dose for his weight. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you aren’t sure.

Panadol® and Dymadon® are examples of paracetamol.

Ibuprofen is an effective alternative to paracetamol for children over three months, but you should avoid using it if your child has asthma. Ibuprofen must be taken after food – do not use ibuprofen if your child has lost her appetite or is vomiting. 

Nurofen® and Advil® are examples of ibuprofen.

Do not give aspirin to children under 12 years unless prescribed by a doctor for certain medical conditions.


Antibiotics work only on bacterial infections, not on viruses such as colds or the flu.

Using antibiotics incorrectly can lead to side effects such as diarrhoea, dehydration or an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.

Your doctor has many different antibiotics to choose from. Some are effective against only certain types of bacteria. Others target a broad range of bacteria and are called broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Your doctor will try to choose the right antibiotic to fight the bacteria infecting your child. The doctor might also order some tests to find out what type of bacteria is causing your child’s infection.

The decision to use antibiotics depends on your doctor, and your child’s symptoms and medical history. If your child needs to take antibiotics, he should complete the entire course of antibiotics, even if he seems better after a few days. Infection might come back a week or two later if the bacteria aren’t completely gone from his system.

Cough and cold medications

Children under six years should not be given cough and cold medications, including decongestant nasal sprays.

Children aged 6-11 years should take cough and cold medications only on the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner.

Coughing is actually a great way to clear mucus from airways, and it helps prevent children from getting another infection.

Also, drinking plenty of water does more to relieve a cough than medications – but do see your doctor if your child’s coughing doesn’t go away or seems particularly bad.

Saline nasal sprays and drops are safe options for clearing blocked noses. Fess Little Noses® is an example of this kind of medication.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has more detailed information about cough and cold medications for children.


Itching, sneezing, swelling or rashes can all be symptoms of allergies. Medications known as antihistamines are used to block these symptoms.

Antihistamines can sometimes cause dry mouths, drowsiness and upset stomachs.

You should not give children under two years sedating anithistamines such as promethazine (for example, Phenergan®) or trimeprazine (for example, Vallergan®).

Some antihistamines have a less sedating effect and might be more suitable for your child. Examples include cetirizine (for example, Zyrtec®) and loratadine (for example, Claratyne®).

Antihistamines are not used to treat croup because they’ll dry out your child’s air passages.

Antihistamines generally aren’t recommended for long-term use, so check with your doctor before giving them to your child.

Antihistamines and sleep
Antihistamines, including promethazine (for example, Phenergan®) or trimeprazine (for example, Vallergan®) aren’t recommended for helping children sleep, unless you use them under the supervision of your doctor. These medications sometimes cause daytime drowsiness, which might affect your child’s ability to learn.

Antihistamines can also cause some children to become hyperactive, which might make any sleep problems worse.

If you’re thinking about giving your child medicine for sleep or behaviour problems, always talk to your doctor first about what’s safe and what will work. You can find more information in our article on sleep medications for children.

Medications to avoid

Think very carefully before giving your child medications that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor.

  • Don’t give your child anti-nausea medications unless the doctor specifically tells you to. Usually vomiting doesn’t last long, and children get over it without medication. But vomiting children can get dehydrated very quickly. So if your child is vomiting and shows signs of dehydration – for example, not urinating, feeling thirsty, tired and lethargic, and looking gaunt and pasty – contact your doctor immediately.
  • If your child is already taking prescribed medicine, it’s best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving her any paracetamol or ibuprofen. Paracetamol or ibuprofen are found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, so it pays to read the label carefully.
  • Adult medications or medications prescribed for someone else might harm your child. It’s never safe to give these to your child.
  • Expired medicine doesn’t work and can even be harmful.
  • Young children can easily choke on chewable tablets. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving your child chewable tablets.
Mixing prescription medicine and over-the-counter medicine from a pharmacist can be very dangerous. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist first. And if you’re not sure what’s in a particular medicine, ask the pharmacist or your child’s doctor.

Vitamins: a good idea?

There’s no evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements help children’s health in any way unless the child has a deficiency of some kind – and very few children suffer from these deficiencies.

Check with your doctor if you think this might your child might have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.

What to ask your doctor and pharmacist about medications

When your doctor prescribes medicine for your child, you might like to ask:

  • What’s the medicine prescribed for?
  • Will it have side effects?
  • How soon will it start to work?
  • How much should I give my child, and how should I give it?
  • Should I give the medication at any specific time, like before or after food?
  • How long should the prescription last?
  • Will the medication interact or interfere with anything else my child is taking?
  • Does the medication need to be kept in the fridge or away from light or heat?
  • Can I put the medication in food, or should I be giving my child certain foods with the medication?

If you’re getting over-the-counter medication from the pharmacy, you should ask the pharmacist all the questions above. Also ask whether the medication is safe for your child, how long you should wait to visit your doctor if problems don’t go away, and whether there’s any alcohol in the ingredients.

We've included common brands to help you understand more about the medications you're likely to see. Raising Children Network does not recommend any particular brand and does not receive financial support from pharmaceutical companies.
  • Last updated or reviewed 14-08-2014