Coughs, colds, and codeine: Risky remedies for sick kids?

When kids get sick with a cough or a cold, the first instinct as parents may be to give them over-the-counter medications to relieve their symptoms. But some of these medications may have dangerous side effects for kids. That’s why there are warning labels on over-the-counter cough and cold medicines that say these products should not be given to children under four years old. Despite these warnings, some parents continue to give these medications to their young children.

In 2011 and 2013, our NPCH Reports found that parents still give their children over-the-counter cough and cold medicine even though the labels warn them against it. In 2011, over half of parents said that these medications are safe for children under 2 years old. In 2013, parents of children under 4 years old reported giving different types of cough and cold medicine to their children:

Figure 1. Proportion of Parents Who Give Cough and Cold medicines to Children under four years old

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If the cough or cold is too serious to treat with rest and fluids, a visit to the doctor’s office may be in order. However, even some prescription medicines to treat coughs and colds in children may be dangerous, especially if they contain codeine.

In July, the FDA released a safety alert regarding the use of cough and cold medicines that contain codeine for children under 18, citing the potential risk of breathing difficulty. This alert stems from an announcement from the European Medicines Agency saying that codeine must not be used to treat coughs/colds in children under 12. Final FDA conclusions and recommendations have not been released as of yet, as they are still investigating the issue. For more information on codeine, visit

What do you think?
Do you give your young children codeine-containing or over-the-counter medicines to treat coughs and colds? Share your thoughts in the comments below and on Facebook and Twitter @MottNPCH.