11 natural cough and cold remedies for kids

Nov. 4, 2020

It starts off subtle for kids — a little sniffle, the errant cough — but if you’re a parent or caregiver, you know what’s coming: A cold. A cough. Or, if the universe is feeling particularly prickly, a double-whammy of the two. Generally speaking, colds in kids aren’t anything to worry about, but as any parent or caretaker can attest to, they can make life miserable for all parties involved. 

So here’s the bad news when it comes to kids and the common cold: During the cooler months, they go hand-in-hand. According to Dr. Syeda Amna Husain, a pediatrician at Pure Direct Pediatrics in Marlboro Township, New Jersey, it’s normal for children to get between 8-12 colds a year, and each cold can last 3-7 days. “Imagine that child is in day care, and that number easily becomes 12-15 colds a year,” notes Husain. “Do the math, and you’ll realize that’s a lot of days out of the year where your child has persistent coughs and sniffles.” 

The good news? There are a number of natural remedies for cough and cold symptoms that can help mitigate discomfort. “As a parent, I really do understand the frustration of watching your child tough out cold symptoms,” says Husain. “However, there are some great measures you can do at home.”

1. Hydration

Since fevers can cause dehydration — and they’re often a virus side effect — it’s paramount to make sure children are taking in fluids when they’re under the weather. And if your child isn’t one to chug a sippy cup full of water, it’s perfectly OK to improvise. “Since hydration is so important when kids are sick, I encourage parents to get creative and offer ice pops or foods that contain more water like soup, applesauce or watermelon in order to get their child to take more fluids,” says Dr. Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

If your child is unable to drink due to difficulty breathing, contact their pediatrician right away. “This is a warning sign that a child is unable to move air easily,” explains Husain. “Typically, this is more of a concern we see in young children and toddlers, as older children are usually able to verbalize these issues early on.  

 2. Saline 

When little ones have stuffy noses, saline sprays can be a great natural decongestant. “Saline nasal sprays can be an amazing natural and effective tool for congestion,” says Husain, who likes Zarbee’s Naturals Soothing Saline Mist Nasal Mist with Aloe. “A few drops can loosen mucus and help to clear the passageways without you having to stick anything up those small nostrils.” 

Kids older than 6 can try using a saline rinse with neti pot (just make sure to use bottled water that’s been distilled or sterilized). “Flushing the nose with a neti pot is a great way to naturally rinse mucus and help flush out toxins,” says Sammie Mancine, a registered nurse and certified holistic nutritionist.

3. Suction

The peanut butter to saline spray’s jelly? Suctioning. “Suctioning can be a beneficial complement to saline, but just make sure to go easy,” notes Husain. “Suctioning or using a bulb syringe too much can cause some trauma into those small nostrils and actually increase swelling. It’s helpful, especially with babies, but try not to overdo it.”

4. Sleep

One of the best — simplest — natural remedies for cold and cough? Good old-fashioned shut-eye. “When kids or adults are sick with a cold or cough, rest and sleep are absolutely key,” says Mancine. “When we’re sleeping, the body is working its immune-boosting, virus-fighting magic.” 

According to the Mayo Clinic, the immune system releases proteins called cytokines when we’re sleeping, some of which need to increase when we have infections. Additionally, infection-fighting antibodies decrease when we’re not getting enough sleep — the perfect reason to turn in early.

5. Gargle

When a sore throat is a cold symptom, try getting older kids to gargle. Usually at around 8 years old, kids can gargle with warm salt water to help clear mucus from the back of their throats and soothe their sore throat, says Lockwood. For temporary relief of a painful throat, the Mayo Clinic suggests using 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water. 

6. Humidifier

Both Lockwood and Mancine are fans of using cool mist humidifiers during illness since they help add moisture to the air and break up congestion. “Feel free to add some dried lavender near the humidifier to calm the nervous system,” suggests Mancine. 

7. Honey

Honey can be great for coughs and dry, scratchy throats, but don’t use it in children under 1 year old, as it’s been linked to infant botulism. “For older children, some studies have shown honey can work very well, plus it has no adverse side effects like some over-the-counter cold medications,” notes Husain.

Mancine suggests either giving kids a spoonful of honey mixed with cinnamon or mixing it with hot water, squeezed lemon, and as an option, turmeric and black pepper. “This tea can be very soothing for a cough,” she says. 

8. Warm liquids

While you’re at it, don’t stop at tea when your child has a cough or is stuffed up. “Warm drinks can be incredibly beneficial for soothing sore throats that often come with coughs,” says Husain. “Plus, the steam helps open nasal passages.” Husain notes that, for kids who don’t like tea, warm cocoa or soup is just as effective. A favorite of Mancine’s is miso soup, which is rich in B vitamins and vitamin C and aids with digestion.

9. Hot baths

Baths aren’t just a soothing pre-bedtime ritual, they’re also great for loosening up mucus. “I always make sure my kids take extra long, warm baths when they’re sick with a cold since it calms them down so much,” says mom of two Jennie Cho of Middletown, New Jersey. “When they were babies, I would shut the door and run the shower on super hot and just sit on the floor of the steamy bathroom with them.”   

For older kids, Mancine suggests running a hot bath with Epsom salts, which can help promote sleep. However, if your child is still in the drinking-the-bath-water stage, this should be avoided since Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) are a laxative.

10. Heating packs

According to Husain, heating packs can be a huge hit for kids during a cold. “While they don’t help the throat heal faster or make the body get over the virus quicker, they can be a great source of comfort, in addition to cuddles with mom and dad,” she says. 

11. Elevation of the head

Giving older kids who sleep in a bed an extra pillow when they’re congested can help them breathe easier at night since a slight incline will help drain the sinuses, according to Children’s MD. For babies who are still in a crib, try placing a blanket or thin pillow under the mattress to give them a little lift — but only do this if the mattress is firm; do not attempt with a portable crib, such as a Pack ‘n Play.

A note on coughs, colds and COVID

In a cruel twist of fate, COVID-19 in kids often presents itself like a run-of-the-mill cough or cold. However, in some cases, there can be one distinct difference between the two. 

“Cough is one of the most common symptoms of COVID and may also be associated with shortness of breath or respiratory distress,” explains Lockwood. “A COVID cough versus a cold cough can be almost impossible to distinguish, but usually children with a cold do not have shortness of breath or respiratory distress, so these are warning signs that you should see your healthcare provider or go to the emergency department for further evaluation.” 

“During this pandemic, if your child is coughing,” Lockwood says, “you should call your healthcare provider even if you think it is only a cold.” 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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