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When your child’s feeling under the weather, 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 kind of medication to give and when.

Young girl with a toy syringe

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Adult medicine isn’t suitable for children – their small bodies are very sensitive to medicine, and they need medications that have been specifically designed for their size and their needs. 
  • Until your baby is six months old, don’t give him any medicine at all (unless prescribed by a doctor).
  • 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
 

Paracetamol

Paracetamol is often used to relieve pain or to lower a child’s fever. A high fever can make your child irritable, so medicine can be used to lower his temperature if he’s really uncomfortable.

If your child has a fever, her body’s probably fighting an infection, and medicine might slow down this process. It’s more important to monitor other symptoms, such as vomiting and coughing, than just looking at her temperature.

Paracetamol is safe if you follow the recommended doses, but an overdose can cause liver failure. Also, giving paracetamol to a child under one year of age has been shown to increase the risk of asthma. Speak to your doctor for further information on suitable medication options for your child.

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 amount for his weight.

Ibuprofen is a safe alternative to paracetamol, but avoid it if your child is vomiting or has asthma.

Aspirin should never be given to young children, because there’s a strong possibility of serious side effects.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics work only on bacterial infections, not on viruses. Research suggests that children with viral infections such as colds or the flu are being prescribed antibiotics unnecessarily. Using antibiotics incorrectly can lead to side effects such as diarrhoea, dehydration and allergies.

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 need to 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, she should complete the entire course of antibiotics, even if she seems better after a few days. Infection might come back a week or two later if the bacteria aren’t completely gone from her system.

Decongestants

Many parents give their children decongestants to relieve cold and flu symptoms, but there’s little evidence that these actually work.

In fact, coughing is actually a great way to clear mucus from airways, and helps prevent children from getting another infection. Also, drinking plenty of water does more to relieve a cough than medicine – but do see your doctor if the cough persists, or seems particularly bad.

Decongestants might cause unpleasant side effects like grumpiness, confusion and sleepiness.

Antihistamines

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. Some brands don’t have a sedating effect (for example, Zyrtec and Claratyne) and are more suitable for your child. Antihistamines can be given with any antibiotic, paracetamol (such as Panadol), ibuprofen (such as Nurofen), decongestants or cough suppressants.

They can’t be used to treat croup because they’ll dry out your child’s air passages.

Children under two years shouldn’t be given anithistamines. Also, antihistamines aren’t recommended for long-term use, so check with your doctor before giving them to your child.

Phenergan
Some parents give their children antihistamines, such as Phenergan (which is one of a few brands of the drug promethazine), to help them sleep. Research shows that antihistamines have almost no effect on children’s sleep patterns. If you’re having trouble getting your child to sleep, our guide to solving sleep problems might help.

You might be thinking about giving your child medication to calm difficult behaviour. These medications sometimes cause drowsiness, so they might also affect his ability to learn. On the other hand, they cause some children to become more active and alert.

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 also find more information in our article on pills, potions and tonics for sleep.

Medicines to avoid

Think very carefully before giving your child any medicine that hasn’t been prescribed by a doctor.

  • Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness. It can also cause serious illness or even death in children with chicken pox or flu symptoms. Not all over-the-counter medicines are aspirin-free, so you need to check this with your pharmacist or doctor, or read the label. Aspirin is sometimes referred to as ‘salicylate’ or ‘acetylsalicylic acid’.
  • Anti-nausea medications have risks and possible complications. Don’t give your child anti-nausea medication unless the doctor specifically recommends it. Usually vomiting is pretty short-lived, and children can handle it without medication. If your child is vomiting and begins to get dehydrated, contact your doctor immediately.
  • If your child is already taking prescribed medicine, it’s best to check with your doctor 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.
  • Oral decongestants like Dimetapp Elixir and Demazin Syrup aren’t recommended for children under two years of age.
  • Adult medications or medication 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.
  • Chewable tablets are too small to give to your child – he can easily choke on them.

If you’re not sure what’s in a particular medicine, ask the pharmacist or your child’s doctor.

Mixing prescription medicine and over-the-counter medicine from a pharmacist can be very dangerous. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist first.

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 be the case with your child.

You might also like to read our article on vitamins and minerals.

What to ask your doctor and pharmacist

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

  • ‘What’s the medicine prescribed for?’
  • ‘Will it have side effects?’ (For example, high doses of vitamins A and D can accumulate in the body and cause side effects.)
  • ‘How soon will it start to work?’
  • ‘How much should I give my child, and how should I give it to her?’
  • ‘Should I give the medicine at any specific time, like before or after food?’
  • ‘How long should the prescription last?’
  • ‘Will the medicine interact or interfere with anything else my child is taking?’
  • ‘Does the medicine need to be kept in the fridge or away from light or heat?’
  • ‘Can I put the medicine in food, or should I be giving my child certain foods with the medicine?’
If you’re getting over-the-counter medicine from the chemist, you should ask the pharmacist all the questions above. Also ask whether the medicine 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 or aspirin in the ingredients.
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  • Last Updated 30-12-2010
  • Last Reviewed 01-10-2009
  • Beasley, R., Clayton, T., Crane, J., et al. (2008). Association between paracetamol use in infancy and childhood, and risk of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema in children aged 6–7 years: Analysis from Phase Three of the ISAAC programme. Lancet, 372(9643), 1039-1048.

    Choonara, I. (2000). Clinical trials of medicines in children. British Medical Journal, 321, 1093-1094.

    Committee on Children and Young People (2002). Inquiry into the use of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications in children and young people: The use by children and young people of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications in children and young people. (Issues Paper No 4). Sydney: NSW Government.

    Cranswick, N. (2001). Over-the-counter medication in children: Friend or foe? Australian Presciber, 24(6), 149-151.

    Gazarian, M.(2003). Why are children still therapeutic orphans?, Australian Prescriber, 26(6), 122-123.

    Institute of Clinical Systems Improvements (2007). Diagnosis and treatment of respiratory illness in children and adults. Retrieved May 30, 2007, from http://www.guideline.gov/summary/summary.aspx?doc_id=10622&nbr=005564&string=medication+AND+children.

    Sinha,Y., & Cranswick, N. (2007). How to use medicines in children: Principles of paediatric clinical pharmacology. Journal of Paediatrics and child Health, 43, 107-111. 

    Stephenson, T. (2001). Medicines for children: The last century and the next. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 85(3), 177-179.

    US Department of Health and Human Services (2001). The pediatric exclusivity provision - January 2001: Status report to Congress. Washington, DC: US Food and Drug Administration.
     

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