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Q&A: Can You Give Antihistamines to Children to Make Them Feel (and Sleep) Better?

Question: I have a newborn and a toddler, and cold and flu season makes nights pretty treacherous in our house. Is it safe for me to give either of them antihistamines to help them rest?

Answer: Tempting as it is for you to reach for an antihistamine like Benadryl (dipenhydramine) when you’re up for the third night with a sneezy toddler, don’t do it. Indeed, antihistamines can claim drowsiness as a side effect, but they’re to be used only to give relief to children with known allergy symptoms like itchy, watery eyes, rash, sneezing, or allergic type reactions. Consult with your pediatrician before offering it to your child for the first time.

And over-the-counter cough and cold medications aren’t the right remedy either for children the age of yours. In a June 2008 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that over-the-counter cough and cold medications should not be given to infants and children younger than 2 years of age, due to the risk of life-threatening side effects. They report: “Studies show that cold and cough products don’t work in children younger than 6 years and can have potentially serious side effects.”

So, what is a parent to do to ease some of the symptoms and let everyone get some rest? Well, it turns out that the old-fashioned ways of treating symptoms are the best:

  • Stuffy nose: Your pediatrician may recommend saline drops and a bulb syringe to help loosen and remove mucus in your child’s nose. If you aren’t sure how to use a bulb syringe, have a nurse or your pediatrician show you how.
  • Cough: For children over 2 years of age, you can offer 1/2 teaspoon of honey. For those over 2 years up through age 11, try 1 teaspoon. Never give honey to a child under the age of 1.
  • Fever: Your pediatrician may recommend using acetaminophen. Follow her instructions on dosage and consult the package for proper dosing according to your child’s age and weight.
  • Chest congestion and stuffy nose: Try using a cool mist humidifier in your child’s room. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for keeping it clean!

Looking for tips to help your family stay healthy this winter? Try the following:

  • If possible, breastfeed your baby (this supports a strong immune system for your child).
  • Be sure all family memebers frequently wash their hands.
  • Don’t share cups or utensils.
  • Promote rest and good nutrition.
  • If you know someone is sick, try to limit their exposure to your children (and if your kids are sick, be sure to limit their exposure to others).
  • Wash surfaces frequently like sink handles and countertops.
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