Restricting cough and cold medicines in children

J Paediatr Child Health. 2012 Feb;48(2):91-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1754.2010.01780.x. Epub 2010 Jun 27.


Aims: Based on concerns about safety and efficacy, international authorities have either advised against the use of cough and cold medication or considering such action. We aimed to systematically review the evidence for the effectiveness and safety of cough and cold medicines in children.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review to identify studies relating to the use of products to treat symptoms of the common cold, influenza or allergic rhinitis, and relating to poisoning or toxicity from unintentional ingestion or overdose in children (<12 years). Medline, Embase and the Cochrane database were searched. No meta-analysis was undertaken because of the paucity of evidence, multiple medicines available, and the need to consider both effectiveness and safety.

Results: Seventy two relevant studies or clinical reports were identified. There was little support for the effectiveness of these medicines for acute cough or the common cold in children. However, the majority of these medicines do not appear to be highly toxic in children and are not a major cause of severe effects following unintentional poisoning. The common use of these agents does not appear to be responsible for increased deaths in young children. Many cases of toxicity from cough and cold medications in young children are a result of therapeutic error. Particular medications, including diphenhydramine and codeine, appear to be associated with a high frequency of severe adverse effects and toxicity.

Conclusion: Restriction of cough and cold medicines in children is supported by currently available evidence.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antitussive Agents / adverse effects
  • Antitussive Agents / poisoning
  • Antitussive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Australia
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Common Cold / drug therapy*
  • Cough / drug therapy*
  • Drug and Narcotic Control
  • Histamine Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Histamine Antagonists / poisoning
  • Histamine Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Nasal Decongestants / adverse effects
  • Nasal Decongestants / poisoning
  • Nasal Decongestants / therapeutic use*


  • Antitussive Agents
  • Histamine Antagonists
  • Nasal Decongestants