October 2019

What Supplements Can Kids Take for Cough & Cold?

Many OTC cough and cold medicines commonly used by adults aren’t recommended for children under the age of 6 years old. So, you may find parents asking if any supplements can be safely used. Providing guidance in this area can be tricky. Most supplements are evaluated for safety and effectiveness in adults, not kids. But kids are still getting sick – so, what can they use?

Worth trying: The most popular ingredient in "natural" cough and cold products for kids is honey. Research shows that taking 0.5-2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime can reduce coughing and improve sleep in kids 2 years and older with a cold. It’s also at least as effective as common OTC cough suppressants like dextromethorphan. But make sure parents understand that they should NOT give honey to infants under 12 months – doing so puts the child at risk for botulism poisoning.

There are also several nonpharmacologic strategies that can also benefit kids. When done properlynasal irrigation can safely improve symptoms of colds and allergies in children. Using humidifiers can also help. Remind parents that for many kids, drinking lots of fluids and eating soup might be all they need to get over a cold.

Consider avoiding: Elderberry is a popular ingredient commonly used for cold and flu symptoms. Taking elderberry extract might shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms in kids over 12. But keep in mind that many products don’t contain enough elderberry extract to have the benefits seen in clinical research, and safety in children under 12 isn’t clear.

Parents might also ask about camphor. It’s FDA-approved as a chest rub for cough in adults. While it’s safe and effective to use topically for cough in adults, camphor is actually POSSIBLY UNSAFE for kids. Kids are more prone to its side effects even when a small amount is absorbed through the skin.

Vitamin C and zinc supplements are also very common. While these supplements may shorten colds or improve coughs adults, high doses are typically used. These high doses might not be safe for children and may increase side effects. The risk probably outweighs any benefit. Echinacea is also very popular in cold supplements. While it might benefit adults, it actually doesn’t seem to benefit kids. It can also cause an allergic skin rash in some children.

Explain to parents that despite what they might read on the internet, most supplements haven’t been adequately tested for safety in children. Most studies evaluate use in only adults. Additionally, our Natural Medicines NMBER rating system on commercial products factors in adult safety ratings only – just because a product has a high rating doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for children.

 Related topic:

Reviewed February 2023

The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.