When your child is feeling unwell, there’s only one thing you want to do – make him feel better as soon as possible. Love and cuddles always help, but sometimes your child might need medications too. Here’s how to know which 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. Some adult medications aren’t suitable for children.
Whenever you give your child medication, you need to check the dosage carefully. And always store medicines out of your child’s reach.
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 temperature during a fever.
If your child has a fever, her body is probably fighting an infection. A high fever doesn’t always need treatment, but it can make your child uncomfortable. Medication can help to lower her temperature and make her feel more comfortable.
If your child has a fever, it’s also important to monitor other symptoms like vomiting and coughing, rather than just looking at your child’s temperature.
Paracetamol for children comes in different strengths and varieties, so read the label and follow the dosage instructions carefully, especially if you have children of different ages and weights in the household.
Paracetamol is safe if you give your child the right dose, but an overdose can be dangerous. It can even cause liver failure in severe cases. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you aren’t sure about the recommended dosage for your child.
Panadol® and Dymadon® are examples of paracetamol.
Ibuprofen is an effective alternative to paracetamol for pain and fever relief. It’s suitable for children over three months, but you should avoid using it if your child has asthma.
Ibuprofen must be taken after food because it can upset an empty stomach. And don’t use ibuprofen if your child has lost his appetite or is vomiting. Always follow the instructions on the packaging.
Nurofen® and Advil® are examples of ibuprofen.
If your child is in a lot of pain, especially before the next dose of medication is due, it’s OK to alternate paracetamol and ibuprofen. Make sure to record when you give each medication so you don’t give your child too much. Call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126 for advice in case of an overdose.
Combining paracetamol or ibuprofen with prescribed medication
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’s important to read the label carefully to avoid accidental overdose.
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 like colds or the flu.
Using antibiotics incorrectly can lead to side effects like diarrhoea, dehydration or an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. Overuse can also result in antibiotic resistance.
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, it’s very important that he takes 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.
Never use old, leftover antibiotics for new illnesses.
Avoid flushing medicines down the toilet or pouring them down the sink. Return Unwanted Medicines
is a free service offered by pharmacies to safely dispose of out-of-date and unwanted medicines.
Cough and cold medications
Children under six years should not take 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. To stop infections spreading from your child to other people, teach her how to cough or sneeze into a tissue or her elbow, rather than into her hands.
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. To avoid spreading infections, have different bottles for different 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 a dry mouth, drowsiness and upset stomach.
You shouldn’t give children under two years antihistamines that cause drowsiness. Examples are promethazine (Phenergan®) and trimeprazine (Vallergan®).
Some antihistamines are less likely to cause drowsiness and might be more suitable for your child, especially if he takes them during the day. Examples include cetirizine (Zyrtec®) and loratadine (Claratyne®).
Antihistamines aren’t used to treat croup because they’ll dry out your child’s air passages and can make her symptoms worse.
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 have the opposite effect, causing 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 and 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.
Vomiting children can get dehydrated very quickly. If your child is vomiting and shows signs of dehydration – for example, not doing enough wees, feeling thirsty, tired and lethargic, and looking gaunt and pasty – contact your doctor immediately.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications
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.
Medications not meant for your child
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.
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 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?
- How much should I give my child, and how and when should I give it?
- How soon will it start to work?
- Will it have side effects or interact or interfere with anything else my child is taking?
- Can I put the medication in food, or should I be giving or avoiding certain foods with the medication?
- How long should the prescription last?
- How should I store 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. And remember to tell the pharmacist if your child has allergies.
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.