5 Gentle Remedies to Relieve Congestion in Toddlers

Medically reviewed by Karen Gill, MD on January 4, 2018Written by Jessica Timmons on January 4, 2018
Congestion in Toddlers

Coughing, sneezing, and that stuffy little nose…

When your little one has a cold, the symptoms can vary. But nasal congestion is almost always an issue.

For many parents, a stuffy nose is more worrisome than one that keeps running. For many caregivers, this is because congestion appears to affect how well their child breathes. While adults and older children can blow their noses to help clear their nasal passages, not all toddlers will have mastered this skill yet.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under age 4 shouldn’t be given over-the-counter cough and cold medications. The academy also advises that these medications should only be given with a doctor’s guidance for children between 4 and 6 years old. This is because they’re ineffective for young kids. They also can pose serious, even life-threatening side effects.

So how can you offer relief to your toddler? Try these five gentle and effective home remedies to relieve congestion.

These should help make your child comfortable until the cold runs its course, usually after about 10 days.

1. Steamy air

Having your toddler breathe moist air can help loosen all the mucus causing their congestion. Try using a humidifier, vaporizer, or just having your child sit in a steamy bathroom.

If you’re using a humidifier, make sure it’s cleaned regularly to avoid spreading mold spores. Set it up according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Run it in your child’s room during the night, or keep it on during the day while they’re playing.

A warm bath in a steamy bathroom will have the same decongesting effect. You’ll also get the added benefit of offering comfort and distraction to your child.

Alternately, try running a hot shower, laying a towel on the floor against the door, and simply sitting in the steamy space with your little one.

2. Nasal aspirator and saline drops

For toddlers who have yet to learn how to blow their noses, a bulb syringe can help clear the nasal passages. A bulb syringe, or nasal aspirator, has a blunt tip attached to a flexible bulb.

Pair it with saline, or saltwater, drops for maximum effectiveness. These are available over the counter, or can be made at home by mixing a 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. Make a fresh batch each day. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Gently lay your child down on their back over a towel roll to help keep their head back.
  2. Apply two to three drops of the saline solution into each nostril. This will help thin the mucus causing the congestion. If possible, try to keep your child still for about a minute after applying the drops.
  3. Next, sit them up. Squeeze the bulb portion of the syringe. Gently insert the rubber tip into one nostril, being careful not to press it in too deeply. For better suction, use your finger to gently press the other nostril closed.
  4. Begin slowly releasing the bulb to draw in the saline drops and mucus. Remove the tip of the syringe and squeeze it into a tissue to eject the contents. Then wipe it off and repeat with the other nostril.
  5. Be sure to properly clean the bulb syringe after using it.

Saline drops shouldn’t be used for longer than a few days in a row. They can dry out your child’s nose, making them more uncomfortable. Avoid using a bulb syringe more than several times in a single day so you don’t irritate the sensitive lining in your child’s nose.

Some children really don’t like bulb syringes. In that case, try using the saline drops alone. Just use a tissue to wipe up whatever runs out.

3. Lots of fluids

Dehydration can be a problem when your child has a cold. Avoid it by offering plenty of fluids.

Having your child sip liquids will also help thin nasal secretions and reduce congestion.

For older infants and children, water is ideal. If your child refuses, try offering other beverages that are still healthy. Smoothies and frozen juice pops made just from juice can be good options to soothe sore throats and help your child stay hydrated.

If your child prefers something warm, chicken broth is another option. Warm liquids, even warm apple juice, can be comforting when your child has a cold.

4. Plenty of rest

Some toddlers aren’t as energetic as they usually are when they’re sick, particularly if they have a fever. That’s because their body is working hard to fight off their cold. Encourage your little one to rest as much as possible so they can heal.

While sleep is ideal, quiet play is good, too. Try setting your child up in a comfortable area like their bed, the sofa, or even a snuggly spot with lots of pillows on the floor. Offer stories, blocks, coloring books, a favorite movie, or just time with you — anything to keep them quietly occupied.

5. Sleeping upright

Lying down to rest can make your child’s congestion even worse. This can be disrupting to sleep. There are a few ways you can try elevating your toddler’s upper body so gravity can help reduce congestion.

Try placing a rolled-up towel or a pillow beneath the top part of your child’s mattress. This slightly upright position may be more comfortable than lying flat, especially if your child is very congested.

The takeaway

Always talk to your pediatrician before trying any over-the-counter or at-home remedies for toddler congestion. Be sure to call the pediatrician if symptoms get worse, or if your toddler develops a fever over 100.4˚F (38˚C) or is acting very ill.

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