Some children are better at sharing toys than others, but all children are champs when it comes to sharing germs. Despite your best instructions about not using each other’s sippy cups and covering mouths when coughing, all kids come down with colds at one time or another. Bed rest and lots of T.L.C. may be the best medicine you can offer a sick child, but medications will often be reached for to bring down a fever or quiet a cough.

What you don’t know about the medicines you are giving your kids can do them more harm than good. While your first line of defense should always be a call to the pediatrician, here is a list of some medicine cabinet don’ts you should know before treating your child’s cold at home.

  • Aspirin – This common staple can be fatal to children, even in small doses. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s Syndrome and can also cause a wide variety of symptoms, including lethargic behavior or conversely, agitation, nausea, seizures and vomiting.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers – Over-the-counter pain relievers are used to bring down fever and calm muscle aches. They include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) but can also be purchased under a variety of other brand names. Never give your child an adult-strength pain reliever as their dosages will typically exceed the recommended children’s level. And never give a child any medication containing codeine, a dangerous narcotic which can cause serious or even fatal complications. It may be hard to just let a fever run its course but sometimes, that is the best thing you can do for your child. Always check with your doctor and let them know how high your child’s fever is in order to get the best recommendation for either treating it or leaving it alone.   
  • Nasal sprays – Never use an over-the-coutner or prescription nasal spray on your child without a doctor’s approval. Nasal sprays can cause agitation, spike blood pressure and cause dizziness, particularly when combined with other medications used to treat colds. Some nasal sprays have also been linked to reduced growth in childhood. A sterile saline solution may be just as effective in relieving sinus pressure and is a whole lot safer for little noses.  
  • Over-the-counter cough and cold medicine – Both the FDA and drug manufacturers urge parents not to give children under the age of two over-the-counter cough and cold medicine. The risk of side effects outweighs potential product benefits, as medications such as cough suppressants, cough expectorants, decongestants and antihistamines have little positive effect on children’s cold symptoms. No child of any age should be given any type of adult medication, including cough and cold liquids or tablets. If you do have to administer a child-safe liquid medicine to your child, make sure you only use the enclosed measuring spoon to avoid giving a dose that is too large or too small.
  • Muscle rubs – Muscle rubs like Vicks Vapor Rub and Tiger Balm can feel very soothing to a sick child, but are not benign. These products typically contain camphor, which if accidentally ingested or applied too liberally can be toxic, causing the rapid onset of seizures and in some cases, death. Never use a muscle rub on a child under the age of two and check with your doctor before you use it on children under the age of 12.   
  • Holistic medications – Don’t assume a product is safe simply because it is all natural. Holistic medications such as oil of wintergreen, used for headache, fever and sore throat, can easily be over applied or accidentally ingested. A mere teaspoon can be the equivalent of a potentially lethal dose of baby aspirin. Check with your doctor before you use any holistic medications and never combine them with other medications unless you have a physician’s approval.
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No matter what you reach for when your child is sick, make sure that it, and all of the other medications in your home, are out of the reach of little hands. Child-resistant caps can buy you time but are not fool-proof. Make sure your medicine cabinet is locked at all times, even if the children in your life only come over to visit.

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If your child does accidentally ingest something inappropriate, is given the wrong dosage of a medication, or if you simply suspect that they have swallowed something they shouldn’t have, call poison control at 1-800-222-1222 or 911 immediately. A wait-and-see attitude can cost precious time or even a child’s life.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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