Colds and coughs are common in young children. Exposure to germs and fighting them helps kids develop their immune systems. Helping your child to feel comfortable and manage their symptoms can help them get the rest they need to help them recover.
A regular cough can last up to two weeks. Many coughs are due to common viruses that have no cure. Unless a cough is extreme or comes with other, serious symptoms (see our list below), the best solution is to offer comfort measures at home.
Cough treatment should aim to keep your child hydrated, relaxed, and sleeping well. It’s not important to try to stop the coughing itself.
Read on to discover toddler cough remedies you can try at home, plus learn how to identify the signs that your child needs to see a doctor.
Pay attention to the sound of your child’s cough to help you pick the best home remedy and so that you can properly explain the cough to a doctor. For example:
- Deep cough coming from the chest. It’s likely due to mucus in the airways.
- Tight cough coming from the upper throat. It may be due to an infection and swelling around the larynx (voice box).
- Mild cough with sniffing. It could be due to post-nasal drip from the back of your child’s throat.
1. Use saline nasal drops
You can buy these over-the-counter nasal drops at a pharmacy. Used with a nasal syringe or nose blowing, saline drops can soften mucus to help remove it.
Follow the instructions on the bottle to administer the nasal drops safely.
If it’s impossible to get these little drops in your toddler’s nose, sitting in a warm bath can also clear nasal passages and soften mucus. This helps prevent post-nasal drip.
You may especially want to use saline drops before bed or in the middle of the night if your toddler wakes up coughing.
Saline nasal drops are generally considered safe.
2. Offer fluids
Staying hydrated is especially important when your child is sick. Water helps the body fight illness and keeps airways moist and strong.
One way to make sure your child is getting enough water is to have them to drink one serving of water (8 ounces or 0.23 liters) for each year of their life. For example, a one-year-old needs a minimum of one serving of water per day. A two-year-old needs two servings per day.
If they’re refusing their usual milk or not eating much, younger children may need more water. Offer water freely (at least every hour or two), but don’t push them to drink it.
In addition to enough water, you can offer popsicles to increase fluids and soothe a sore throat.
3. Offer honey
Honey isn’t safe for children who are under one year of age because there’s a risk of botulism.
For toddlers over one, you can give a spoonful of honey as often as you like, but be aware of the sugar intake that comes with it.
You can also try mixing the honey in warm water to make it easier for your child to consume the honey. This has the added benefit of helping to hydrate your child, too.
4. Elevate your child’s head when sleeping
Babies under one-and-a-half years old should not sleep with any pillows.
Getting your older toddler to fall asleep with their head on one or more pillows can be difficult, especially if your child is prone to moving around a lot while they’re asleep.
An option other than using pillows in the crib or bed to elevate your toddler’s head, is to try elevating one end of the mattress. You can do this by placing a rolled-up towel under the mattress on the end where your child’s head rests.
However, you should ask your pediatrician before attempting this.
5. Add moisture with a humidifier
Adding moisture to the air helps keep your child’s airways from drying out and loosens mucus. This may ease coughing and congestion.
When purchasing a humidifier, choose a cold air humidifier. Cold air humidifiers are safer for children and as effective as warm air humidifiers. If possible, use purified or distilled water to slow down mineral buildup inside the humidifier.
Run a humidifier all night in the room where your toddler sleeps. During the day, run it in whatever room they’ll be spending the most time in.
If you don’t have a humidifier, you can try running a hot shower and blocking the crack under the bathroom door with a towel. Sit in the steamy bathroom to provide your child with some temporary relief.
6. Talk a walk in cold air
If it’s cold outside, you can try this folk remedy that uses the power of fresh air and exercise to relieve cough symptoms.
Bundle your child up for a walk in cold weather and aim for just a few minutes outside. You don’t want to exhaust your toddler, but there are many anecdotal stories of this helping coughs and shortening the length of a common cold.
Some parents even try opening the freezer door and standing their toddler in front of it for a few minutes if the child wakes up to a coughing fit in the middle of the night.
7. Apply vapor rub
It’s controversial whether vapor rubs that contain camphor or menthol are beneficial. Caretakers have been rubbing this balm on children’s chest and feet for generations, but one animal study suggested it may actually increase mucus, which can dangerously block tiny toddler airways.
Ask your pediatrician before using any vapor rub. If you do use a vapor rub, applying it to your child’s feet may be safer than on the chest where toddlers might touch it and then get it in their eyes.
Never use vapor rub on babies under two, and never put it on a child’s face or under their nose.
8. Use essential oils
These herbal products are gaining in popularity and some may be effective at easing a cough or muscle aches when applied on the skin or diffused into the air.
But always talk with your doctor before using essential oils. Not all oils are safe for toddlers, and dosage isn’t regulated.
Cough medicine isn’t recommended for toddlers or any child under six. It’s also not safe for young children, and it’s usually not effective at relieving their symptoms.
Any combination medicine for treating more than one symptom is likely to give kids more side effects and increase the risk of overdose.
Only offer cough drops to children four years old and older due to choking risks.
For children over the age of one, you can try a homemade cough recipe of honey dissolved in warm water and lemon juice.
In some cases, you may need to see a doctor to treat your child’s cough.
If your child has croup, their pediatrician may prescribe a steroid to decrease inflammation. Croup causes a tight, barking cough that tends to occur along with a fever.
The cough is usually worse at night. Steroids work best when given right away and they can be given to even very young toddlers.
If your doctor determines that your toddler has a bacterial infection, they may prescribe antibiotics. It’s important to give your child the full treatment: don’t stop antibiotics just when symptoms go away.
If you’ve been treating your child’s cough at home for a few days and it’s getting worse, call your pediatrician’s office. The on-call nurse can give you more treatment ideas and help you decided whether or not to come in for a visit.
Asthma and allergies can cause chronic coughs and need to be treated by a doctor. Make an appointment if you think your toddler’s cough is due to either asthma or allergies.
Signs that your child should see a doctor include:
- cough that lasts more than 10 days
- fever over 100.4˚F (38˚C) for more than 3 days
- labored breathing
- chest pain
- muscles pulling in around the neck or rib cage when breathing
- tugging on the ears, which may be a sign of ear infection
The doctor will observe your child’s breathing and, in some cases, may use an X-ray to get a diagnosis.
Go to an emergency room if your child:
- is lethargic or seems very ill
- showing signs of dehydration
- has rapid breathing or can’t catch their breath
- develops a blue tinge on the lips, nails, or skin, which is a sign of a lack of oxygen
Coughing is a common symptom in toddlers and can last for weeks.
Coughs may sound serious and can interrupt sleep, but unless your child is having difficulty breathing, showing signs of croup, or looking seriously sick, you can usually treat coughs at home.