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Using over-the-counter cough and cold medicines

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What are over-the-counter cough and cold medicines?

These are medicines that you can buy without a prescription. They are advertised to help coughing, sneezing and runny noses, but can cause side effects. Research in Canada and the United States found that these medicines do not do a good job of improving cold symptoms.

Avoid giving cough and cold medicines to your child if:

  • Your child is 6 years of age or younger. Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States have recalled several products due to a risk of overdoses in children under 6. If your child is 6 or younger, give these medicines to your child only when your doctor tells you it’s OK.
  • Your child or teen has a long-term breathing problem (for example, asthma or cystic fibrosis). If your child catches a cold, use the treatments recommended by your child’s health care provider (for example: physiotherapy if your child has cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, or reliever inhalers for asthma).

If I do decide to give my child cough and cold medicine, which should I use?

The medicines listed below seem to be generally safe to use in children with long-term breathing problems. They still may cause side effects in some children. We can’t say for sure that these medicines will be safe for every child. Please read all medicine labels and packages carefully.

All the medicines below contain only one drug, called guanefesin.

  • Benylin™ ,or Benylin E (includes Extra Strength)
  • Calmylin® or Calmylin Expectorant
  • Robitussin® (includes Regular & Extra Strength)

Saline Nose drops

  • Hydrasense® Nasal Care (saline nose drops)
  • Salinex ® Spray, Nasal Drops, Mist


Medicines change and new cough and cold medicines often come onto the market. Check the ingredient list, and ask the pharmacist for help. Make sure you tell her if your child has a breathing problem like asthma or cystic fibrosis. 

Understanding cough and cold medicines

Expectorants are supposed to make mucous in the nose and lungs more watery, and easier to cough up. Research studies found that these medicines make people feel like the mucous is thinner, but these medicines really don’t make any difference at all. Saline nose drops contain salt and water. They make mucous in the nose thinner so it can be removed more easily.

Decongestants shrink the lining of the nose and breathing tubes and dry up mucous. This can be a problem for children and adults with long-term breathing problems like cystic fibrosis and asthma, because their mucous is already quite thick and hard to cough up. These medicines can cause side effects like higher blood pressure and heart rate. Decongestant nose drops are better because they cause fewer side effects, and don’t dry up mucous in the lungs.

Antihistamines help to dry up mucous in the nose. This can be a problem for children and adults with long- term breathing problems like cystic fibrosis and asthma, because their mucous is already quite thick and hard to cough up. If this mucous gets thicker, it gets stuck more easily in breathing tubes. This leads to more breathing problems and increases the risk of pneumonia.

Cough suppressants reduce the urge to cough. Children and adults with long-term breathing problems need to cough to get rid of the mucous in their breathing tubes. If they don’t get rid of this mucous, it can block breathing tubes, leading to pneumonia. Children and adults with long-term breathing problems should never take cough suppressants.

Want more info?

In Ontario, for more advice, call

  • Telehealth at: 1-866-797-0000
  • TTY: 1-866-797-0007
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