How to Stop a Cough in a Child

This page gives information on how to stop a cough in a child and on the latest research findings on the effectiveness of over-the-counter cough medicines.

To read more on the causes of cough in children, click here.


Simple Measures for a Non-specific Cough

If your child is coughing, and it is a non-specific cough, then the treatment is just simple measures such as:

  • ensure your child is not exposed to tobacco smoke. If you can't give up smoking, at least ensure you smoke outside the house and you might want to consider wearing a particular smoking jacket that you remove once you've finished your cigarette as the smoke and its ill effects will linger on clothing
  • if your child has a tickle in her throat, give her:
    • a sip of water
    • a sip of honey water
    • honey lozenges
  • your child probably has a viral upper respiratory tract infection (read more) so keep her fluids up so she doesn't get dehydrated

If your child has a specific cause of cough, the answer to "how to stop a cough" will depend on that cause. For example, antibiotics will be necessary for a pneumonia - read more.

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Should I use over-the-counter cough medicine for my child's cough?

The short answer is "no".

The research evidence shows no benefit from over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines over that you get from dummy medication (placebo). So any benefit you may see is probably unrelated to the medicine.

Not only that, over-the-counter cough medicines are commonly involved in childhood poisonings and are potentially dangerous.

There have been reported deaths in young children from over-the-counter cough and cold medications. There are strong recommendations from evidence from the CDC (Center for Disease Control, US) that children under 2 years of age should not be given over-the-counter cough and cold medications because there is no evidence that they work and they have caused death in young children.

So when I'm asked "how to stop a cough in a child", I say that it's best to save your money and just try simple measures for cough in your child. Non-specific cough will eventually improve by itself.

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  • Chang et al. Cough in Children:definitions and clinical evaluation. MJA 2006.184(8):398-403
  • Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004 Oct 18;(4):CD001831.
  • Schroeder K, Fahey T. Should we advise parents to administer over the counter cough medicines for acute cough? Systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Arch Dis Child. 2002 Mar;86(3):170-5.
  • CDC.Infant Deaths Associated with Cough and Cold Medications. MMWR Jan 12 2007. Vol 56 (1): 1-4
  • Smith SM, Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008. Issue 1. Art No:CD001831. DOI 10.1002/14651858.CD001831.pub3

To go to the top of the How to Stop a Cough page, click here

To go to the Cough page, click here

To go to the main Breathing Problem page, click here

To return to the Home page, click here

Last reviewed 24 May 2010

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Dr Maud MD

Dr Maud MD (MBChB, FRACP, FRCPCH), a specialist pediatrician, provides health information and medical advice for parents of babies and toddlers. Read more about Dr Maud.

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