If you’re anything like me, you really dread taking your kid or toddler to the doctor.
It’s not that you don’t want them to feel better when they’re sick!
It’s just that, when they have run of the mill cold symptoms, coughs, etc., there’s often not much the doctor can do. And you usually have to take a half day off of work, have your child miss school, and more just to hear that they should rest and drink fluids.
So you turn to at-home remedies.
If your child or toddler has a nagging coughing, you might be wondering: Can kids have cough drops?
According to Dr. Brady McNulty, a board-certified geriatric pharmacist who works with patients of all ages in southern Oregon, it depends on the type of cough drop.
Cough drops containing menthol and benzocaine (for cooling and numbing the throat, respectively) are generally considered safe for kids as young as 3. Brands like Ricola and Halls are usually safe for toddlers because the main active ingredient is menthol, a simple cooling agent. (IF you feel comfortable that they can eat them without choking. If not, scroll down for an alternative idea).
Cough drops containing dextromethorphan, however, shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 6, but are perfectly safe for children around 6 or older. Robitussin DM cough drops and anything with a DM in the name (for dextromethorphan) shouldn’t be used for toddlers!
If you’re unsure, you should always check with your own doctor or pediatrician.
Plus, there are plenty of at-home remedies for a toddler with a cough that might work for you.
Which kinds of cough drops are safe for toddlers & why?
Let’s take a little bit of a closer look.
If you’re considering giving cough drops to a child under 6, you’ll want to keep a couple of things in mind.
The main one? Always look for the active ingredient(s) in the medicine before giving them to your kid.
Here are the main ingredients you’ll often find in over the counter or non-prescription cough drops, and whether they’re safe for younger children.
Menthol is an organic compound (peppermint, eucalyptus, and other mint oils) that’s used in cough medicine to quite literally cool an irritated throat.
Think the fresh, cool feeling of brushing your teeth, using mouthwash, or eating a mint.
Menthol gently calms the lining of the throat down and relieves some of the irritation, and helps quiet the cough.
Menthol-based cough drops are usually safe for kids 3 and older if used as instructed on the packaging.
Brands to look for: Ricola and Halls
Benzocaine is a simple local anesthetic or numbing agent.
In cough drops, small amounts of it line the throat and numb the irritated area, which helps suppress a cough and soothe a sore throat.
Sometimes, cough drops will combine benzocaine and menthol for a more powerful effect.
Again, benzocaine-based cough drops are usually safe for kids older than 3 if you use them as directed, according to Dr. McNulty.
Brands to look for: Cepacol and Chloraseptic
Dextromethorphan (safe for 6+)
Dextromethorphan, or DM, is a true cough suppressant and a pretty interesting medicine!
It doesn’t treat the source or cause of a cough, but it actually impacts the part of your brain that triggers the urge to cough. That’s pretty cool!
It is, however, a very powerful medication and can be dangerous in high doses. It’s been shown to be safe for kids older than 6 in proper amounts, according to WebMD, but shouldn’t be used for toddlers younger than that.
Brands to look for: Anything with a DM in the name
Are cough drops safe for 1, 2 and 3 year olds?
Don’t give any of this stuff to a 1 or 2-year-old.
Though menthol and benzocaine are typically considered safe, the dosages become a little bit dicey and unpredictable with such small people.
But if your toddler is 3 or older, you should be fine to give them basic over-the-counter cough drops like Halls, Ricola, or Cepacol, if you follow the instructions on the package.
If you’re worried your toddler might choke on the cough drop, you can try toddler cough drops on a stick!
Check out Halls Kids cough and sore throat pops (Amazon link). They use menthol as the main ingredient and come in fun flavors like strawberry.
(These pops say for children under 5 to consult a doctor before use. The doctor I spoke with said menthol is fine and safe for kids as young as 3. Use your own judgment!)
Personally, I let my 3 year old eat hard candies like M&Ms and such all the time, so it’s not a concern for me.
But you should know your own child well enough to know if they can handle something small and hard in their mouth like a cough drop.
How many cough drops can kids and toddlers safely have?
It is possible for an adult or child to overdose on cough drops, but it would be extraordinarily difficult and unlikely without eating (literally) hundreds or thousands of them in a short period of time.
According to Healthline, a lethal dose of menthol is around 1,000mg. A single drop usually has between 3 and 10mg.
The best thing to do is to use the drops as directed by the packaging.
Most cough drops with menthol or benzocaine recommend one drop every 2 hours.
Most drops also recommend that you stop using the cough drops and see a doctor if symptoms haven’t improved in around 2-7 days.
In other words, it’s probably not the best idea to pop cough drops every 2 hours for days on end!
But in a pinch, they work great as an easy over the counter remedy for a kids cough.
At-home cough remedies for young kids
If all of that just sounds a little bit too scary for you, or you have a 2-year-old with a nasty cough and you’re unsure what to do, there are lots of great, natural home remedies for coughs that you can try.
You’ve probably heard of honey for a cough before, and for good reason. It actually works!
Try giving a teaspoon or two of honey before bedtime. It will line the throat and help suppress that nagging cough.
(But Mayo Clinic warns not to give honey to children under 1 year old.)
Peppermint vapors or tea are another popular natural cough remedy.
Healthline suggests adding a few drops of peppermint oil to a hot bath to create steam vapors, then breathing the peppermint in deeply to help suppress a cough.
Yep, you heard that right.
If your child seems otherwise healthy outside of the nagging cough, and it’s not preventing them from sleeping, eating, drinking, and other basic functions, you might not need to treat it at all.
Mayo Clinic writes that you should only use cough medicine when the cough causes a lot of discomfort.
Don’t let your kids suffer, but if they seem happy and healthy, only with an occasional cough, you can consider just keeping an eye on it for a while and/or trying some of the basic home remedies above.
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t claim to be! But I have done my best to source accurate medical information here to help you make the best decision you can.
Depending on who you ask, basic over the counter cough drops are safe for kids anywhere from 3-6 years old.
The pharmacy expert I spoke with said menthol and benzocaine cough drops are safe for kids starting at around 3 (assuming they have good mouth and throat control and aren’t a choking risk).
But if you’re unsure, you should always consult your own doctor or a medical expert you trust before you do anything.
If you’re curious, here is Dr. Brady McNulty’s full response to my question, so you can see exactly what he wrote:
Cough drops are generally safe for use in children six years and older. Medicinal cough drops can include ingredients like benzocaine to numb the throat or small amounts of dextromethorphan to help suppress the cough. Many also contain menthol to cool the throat and provide comfort.
The menthol and benzocaine are safe for children down to as young as three. Dextromethorphan (the DM in different over the counter products) in some forms, especially liquids, can be dangerous if abused, but the amount in a single cough drop is less than that in a serving of your store brand liquid cough suppressant.
Some parents and patients prefer natural alternatives. Honey is probably the most widely known natural remedy. It can be mixed with a hot tea or water, or just given in a spoon. Peppermint provides cooling relief via the menthol contained in the leaves. Salt water gargles can definitely help relieve irritation in the throat, but parents may be hesitant to try having their young ones gargle.
No matter your feeling on giving medicine to young kids, there are always home cough remedies to try for toddlers, including honey and peppermint vapors.
Finally, you may consider not treating the cough at all unless it causes a lot of discomfort or sticks around for more than f few days.
Hope this helps, parents!