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Sharp Health News

Cough meds and kids: A dangerous duo

March 7, 2018

Cough meds and kids: A dangerous duo

A child’s cough is a distressing sound for parents. But before you reach into the medicine cabinet, read on.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that prescription opioid cough and cold medicines containing codeine or hydrocodone should not be used for children under age 18 because they carry serious risks that far outweigh the benefits. The agency also announced new requirements for safety labeling of these prescription medicines to limit the use to adults 18 years and older, and include additional information about the risks of misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose, slowed or difficult breathing, and death.

“Medications with codeine and hydrocodone should be avoided,” says Dr. Alex Johnson, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “These medications put children at risk for headache, vomiting, difficulty breathing, overdose and even death. Furthermore, the unnecessary exposure to opioid medications can lead to future addiction.”

Coughs due to a cold or upper respiratory infection generally do not need to be treated with medication. If a medical professional determines that medication for a cough is necessary in special cases, alternatives to opioid medications are available.

“In addition to all medications with opioids, over-the-counter cold and cough medicines should never be given to children under 2 years old,” Dr. Johnson says. “And antibiotics will not help a cough due to the common cold or an upper respiratory infection because they are caused by viruses.”

According to Dr. Johnson, comfort is the treatment goal for children with coughs. He recommends the following to help your child’s cough feel better:

  • For infants, moisten the nasal passages with saltwater spray or drops and follow with nasal suction
  • Help older children with nasal irrigation using saline, saltwater, or distilled or sterile water
  • Use an air humidifier in your child’s room
  • Make sure they drink plenty of fluids
  • Elevate the head of their bed
  • Give children over age 1 up to 2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime
  • Apply a vapor rub to your child’s upper chest and neck areas before bed

While most coughs can be treated at home, talk to your doctor if your child is 3 months or younger or if you see any of the following signs:

  • Fever of 102° F or higher
  • Labored breathing
  • Blue lips
  • Not eating or drinking
  • Dehydration
  • Ear pain
  • Excessive crankiness or sleepiness

Dr. Johnson warns that dangerous prescription medications, such as opioid cough and cold medicines, are often found in home medicine cabinets and can fall into the wrong hands, including teens. If you have unwanted, unused or expired prescription medications, find the closest medicine drop box by visiting for their safe disposal.

For the news media: To talk with a doctor about the FDA’s recommendations regarding prescription opioid drugs for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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