How to treat coughs in children

Written by Inceptive
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
How to treat coughs in children

It is that dreaded time of year again: Flu season. Coughs, sniffles and fevers will be arriving at your house soon, and you’ll be stepping into the role of healer of the home once more. It’s a tough job, and there will be many questions you will ask along the way: What is the difference between the flu, a cold, or a more serious infection? When should I take my child to the doctor? How long should a viral infection last in a child? How can I treat a viral infection in a child? 

In Inceptive's class ‘How to help your child during flu season’ by Dr. Monica Josten, these questions, and more, are answered. Dr. Josten, a Stanford-trained pediatrician, has created a class to cover all of the most pressing questions that parents have about flu season, including:

  • How to differentiate between a cold and a more serious infection
  • How to quickly identify ‘red flag’ symptoms for when a child needs to see a doctor
  • The best supportive care methods to provide comfort and help children with viral infections

Did you know that healthy children get, on average, 6 viral infections every year[1]? Kids who attend daycare get even more. This means that you’ll be dealing with quite a few infections over the course of this season, and the best thing that you can do for your loved ones is to understand how to ease their symptoms and provide comfort. 

Every parent knows how difficult it is to see their child struggling with the symptoms of a cold or flu. That’s why this class is so helpful - these supportive care methods, as presented by Dr. Josten, will help your child feel better, quicker. 

So, what should you do when your child is struggling with a cough? 

Coughing, along with sneezing and a runny nose, is one of the most common symptoms of a cold or viral infection. Different infections can cause different types of coughs, from the barky cough associated with croup to the more serious whooping cough, although the noise in the name is actually from deep, quick inhalations between coughs. Depending on the type of cough, different action is required. Whooping cough, for example, requires a trip to the doctor and antibiotics. 

Honey is one of the best remedies for treating a cough in children

For less serious coughs, parents can provide care and comfort at home. Depending on the age of your child, different remedies are recommended. Research has shown that honey is one of the best remedies for a cough in children, with better results than over-the-counter medicines[2]. One half to one teaspoon (2 to 5 mL) of honey is effective in reducing the severity, frequency and bothersomeness of a cough, and is a tasty treat to boot - it really is a winning combination! It is important to note that children under one year should not be given honey, as it carries the risk of infant botulism. 

Another great remedy is one you might remember from your own childhood - mentholated rub, applied directly to the chest and neck. This treatment is only recommended for children two years and older. It can really help clear up coughs and is a great pre-bedtime treatment. 

is extra important when your child is ill. When your kid is sick, they might be resistant to drinking enough water, but try to make sure that they keep their fluid levels up. Water helps thin mucus, aiding the body in getting rid of it through coughing and nose blowing. 

A humidifier is a great tool to have handy during the winter season. As the air gets more dry, so does the mucus in your child’s airways. Running a humidifier overnight can help your child breathe and loosen mucus, making it easier to expel. 

The final tool you should include in your arsenal is a suction bulb or nose frida, especially for younger children. Babies don’t know how to blow their noses, so you have to help them with this. Keeping on top of nasal secretions is important, as that post-nasal drip can worsen a cough. 

Over the counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under 12, for a variety of reasons. For one, as we mentioned already, honey has been shown to be a better remedy for coughs, so why waste your money? Not only are they less effective, and more expensive, they have not been appropriately studied in kids. Over the counter medicines run the risk of serious side effects. These side effects range from sedation, excitability, or respiratory depression to hallucinations and even coma. 

In general, if you do use an over the counter medicine for your child, be sure to carefully read the label. You will find all the information you need there, including if the medicine is child-safe, what the recommended dose is, and which side effects to look out for. As with all medicines, be sure to keep the container in a safe place, far out of reach of your child. When giving the dose, use an approved measuring device, such as the cap of the medicine or a dosing syringe. It might be tempting to refer to medicine as candy to entice your kid into taking it, but experts advise you to avoid that as well - it might prove a bit too tempting for a young one to try and get a bit more of that ‘candy’ once your back is turned. 

The safest remedy for a simple cough is rest and honey. Coughs perform an important job, clearing the airways of mucus. They should be allowed to do that without being suppressed, and that will help your child heal faster. Medicine is not always necessary to treat an illness. If your child doesn’t seem to be bothered by their symptoms, then let nature take its course! 

During cold and flu season, you are going to face up against many nasty little bugs. The best thing you can arm yourself with, besides perhaps a few jugs of orange juice and hand sanitizer, is information! That’s exactly what you’ll find in Dr. Josten’s Inceptive course.

All information contained in this article and its discussion was created for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your health care provider. Always seek the advice of your health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

[1] “The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne.” The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne,

[2] Morice, Alyn, and Peter Kardos. “Comprehensive Evidence-Based Review on European Antitussives.” BMJ Open Respiratory Research, Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1 Aug. 2016,

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