Treating common colds: why prevention is your best medicine.

Every winter, New Zealanders spend significant amounts of money on health supplements, including over-the-counter, complementary and alternative medicines, for treating the common cold.  These products are often expensive with no real evidence of effectiveness, while some may have potential for adverse effects1

A common cold affects adults and children differently.  As grown-ups we may reach for a cough medicine or a nasal decongestant; but many of these aren’t suitable for young children. Before giving any medicine to your child, always read the label and check it is okay to give it to children, and look for any warnings or adverse effects. Or better still, talk with your pharmacist or doctor about which medicines are right for your child.   

When you’re trying to figure out what medicines to give your child, consider that there is no cure for a common cold, and few medicines that actually treat the symptoms. In fact, the most effective management for winter illness is to avoid catching them in the first place!  Most children will have between six to ten colds per year, but as the saying goes, ‘prevention is the best medicine’. You can find out more on preventing and reducing the spread of illness here

How to know when it’s something more serious?

On the other hand, it’s important to understand when an illness is more significant that the common cold. See the list of ‘danger signs’ below or click here to see the signs of illness in babies and toddlers.

The danger signs:

if your child has any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately or call 111:

Table adapted from article “identifying the risk of serious illness in Children with fever. BPJ Issue 29, July 2010.

Which medicine is best when your child is sick?

Paracetamol can be given to relieve general aches and pains in children, and to help relieve the pain associated with fever. But remember, just because your child has a fever doesn’t mean you need to give them medicine – unless he or she is miserable or in pain. Fever is a beneficial immune response that reduces the duration of most infections and helps to build up children’s immune systems, so it’s actually a good thing!

Paracetamol (such as Pamol®) is the recommended first line medicine for children1 and in fact, is the ONLY pain and fever medicine that should be given to babies under 12 months old without a doctor’s advice3. Ibuprofen is not a safer alternative for children - the well-known risks of side effects (such as gastrointestinal problems, blood pressure and kidney problems) are at least as great in children as in adults4,5. You should only change to ibuprofen if there is no response to treatment with paracetamol. And you shouldn’t routinely use paracetamol and ibuprofen together unless advised to do so by your doctor2.

Managing your child’s illness at home2

Adapted from article “identifying the risk of serious illness in Children with fever. BPJ Issue 29, July 2010.

Adapted from article “identifying the risk of serious illness in Children with fever. BPJ Issue 29, July 2010.

When does my child need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are only required if a secondary bacterial infection develops, such as an ear infection, a chest infection or for strep throat. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for your child, make sure you follow your doctor’s or pharmacist’s directions and give your child the full course as directed.

References: 1. Do Cough and Cold Medicines Work in Children. BPJ Issue 29 July 2010. 2. Identifying the risk of serious illness in children with fever. BPJ Issue 29 July 2010. 3. Medsafe Labelling Statements Database Ed 1.15 Dec 2014. 4. Safe use of paracetamol in children. BPJ Issue 5. May 2007. 5. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): Making safer treatment choices. BPJ Issue 55, October 2013. PAMOL® for the treatment of child pain and fever. Pamol® contains paracetamol 250mg/5mL. Always read the label and use as directed. Incorrect use can be harmful. If symptoms persist see your healthcare professional. ® Registered Trademark. Aspen Pharmacare C/- Healthcare Logistics, Auckland, TAPS PP6685.