Children’s medicines and medications
Children’s small bodies are very sensitive to medicine, and they need medications that have been specifically designed for their size and their needs. Some adult medications aren’t suitable for children.
If you’re not sure whether medicine is suitable for your child, ask your pharmacist or GP. It’s recommended that you see a doctor before giving a baby under six months any medication.
Whenever you give your child medication, you need to check the dosage carefully. And always store medicines out of your child’s reach and in the original packaging.
Call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126 if you think your child has accidentally taken medication or has taken the wrong dose. If your child stops breathing, loses consciousness or is having seizures, call an ambulance on 000 immediately.
Pain and fever medications: aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen
Do not give aspirin to children under 12 years unless it’s prescribed by a doctor.
Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure they don’t have aspirin.
You can use paracetamol to treat pain like headache, stomach ache, earache, sore throat or fractures.
You can also give your child paracetamol if she has a fever that’s making her feel uncomfortable or unwell.
Paracetamol for children comes in different strengths and varieties, so read the label and follow the dosage instructions carefully, especially if you have children of different ages and weights in the household. Where possible, measure your child’s dose based on his weight rather than his age.
Paracetamol is safe if you give your child the right dose for short periods of time. But an overdose of paracetamol can be dangerous. It can even cause liver failure in severe cases. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you aren’t sure about the recommended dosage for your child.
Panadol® and Dymadon® are examples of paracetamol.
You can use ibuprofen instead of paracetamol for pain and fever relief. It’s suitable for children over three months, but you should avoid using it if your child has severe asthma.
Always follow the instructions on the packaging when giving your child ibuprofen.
Nurofen® and Advil® are examples of ibuprofen.
Combining paracetamol or ibuprofen with prescribed medication
If your child is already taking prescribed medicine, it’s best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving her any paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Paracetamol or ibuprofen are found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, so it’s important to read labels carefully to avoid accidental overdose.
Conditions that paracetamol and ibuprofen can’t help with
Paracetamol and ibuprofen won’t work for cough. They also won’t help children go to sleep.
If your child is in a lot of pain, especially before the next dose of medication is due, it’s OK to give paracetamol and ibuprofen. You can give them together or at different times, as long as you follow the instructions for each individual medication. Make sure to record when you give each medication so you don’t give your child too much.
Antibiotics work only for infections caused by bacteria – for example, bacterial pneumonia, urinary tract infections, middle ear infections and sinusitis.
Antibiotics won’t work for viral infections like colds or the flu.
Using antibiotics incorrectly can lead to side effects like diarrhoea, dehydration or allergic reactions.
Your doctor has many different antibiotics to choose from. Some are effective against only certain types of bacteria. Others target a broad range of bacteria and are called broad-spectrum antibiotics. Your doctor will try to choose the right antibiotic to fight the bacteria infecting your child.
Your doctor might suggest other ways of treating your child’s symptoms before prescribing antibiotics. It’s best not to pressure your doctor for antibiotics if the doctor says your child doesn’t need them.
If your child needs to take antibiotics, it’s very important that he takes the entire course of antibiotics, even if he seems better after a few days. Infection might come back a week or two later if the bacteria aren’t completely gone from his system.
Never use old, leftover antibiotics for new illnesses. And never give antibiotics to someone they haven’t been prescribed for – for example, another child in the family.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance. Preventing unnecessary antibiotic use is an important part of reducing antibiotic resistance.
Cough and cold medications
Children under six years should not take cough and cold medications, including decongestant nasal sprays.
Children aged 6-11 years should take cough and cold medications only on the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner. This includes decongestant nasal sprays.
Saline nasal sprays and drops are safe options for clearing blocked noses for children older than 12 months. Fess Little Noses® is an example of this kind of medication.
Itching, sneezing, swelling or rashes can all be symptoms of allergies or hayfever. Medications known as antihistamines are used to stop these symptoms.
Antihistamines can sometimes cause a dry mouth, drowsiness and upset stomach.
Some antihistamines are less likely to cause drowsiness and might be more suitable for your child, especially if she takes them during the day. Examples include cetirizine (Zyrtec®) and loratadine (Claratyne®).
You shouldn’t give children under two years antihistamines that cause drowsiness. Examples are promethazine (Phenergan®) and trimeprazine (Vallergan®).
Antihistamines generally aren’t recommended for long-term use, so check with your doctor before giving them to your child.
Antihistamines and sleep
Antihistamines, including promethazine (for example, Phenergan®) or trimeprazine (for example, Vallergan®), aren’t recommended for helping children sleep, unless you use them under the supervision of your doctor. These medications sometimes cause daytime drowsiness, which might affect your child’s ability to learn.
Antihistamines can also have the opposite effect, causing some children to become hyperactive. This might make any sleep problems worse.
If you’re thinking about giving your child medicine for sleep or behaviour problems, always talk to your doctor first about what’s safe and what will work. You can find more information in our article on sleep medications and children.
Medications to avoid
Think very carefully before giving your child medications that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor.
Don’t give your child anti-nausea medications unless the doctor specifically tells you to. Usually vomiting doesn’t last long, and children get over it without medication.
A mix of prescription and over-the-counter medications
Mixing prescription medicine and over-the-counter medicine from a pharmacist can be very dangerous. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist first. And if you’re not sure what’s in a particular medicine, ask your pharmacist or doctor.
Medications not meant for your child
Adult medications or medications prescribed for someone else might harm your child. It’s never safe to give these to your child.
Expired medicine doesn’t work and can even be harmful.
Young children can easily choke on chewable tablets. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving your child chewable tablets.
Vitamins: a good idea?
There’s no evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements help children’s health in any way unless the child has a deficiency of some kind – and very few children suffer from these deficiencies.
Check with your doctor if you think your child might have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
What to ask your doctor and pharmacist about medications
When your doctor prescribes medicine for your child, you might like to ask:
- What’s the medicine prescribed for?
- How much should I give my child, and when should I give it?
- How should I give it? Can it be mixed with anything to help my child take it – for example, water, juice, milk or in a puree or food?
- How soon will it start to work?
- Will it have side effects or interact or interfere with anything else my child is taking?
- Should I be giving or avoiding certain foods or drinks with the medication?
- How long should the prescription last?
- How should I store the medication?
- Is the medication safe?
- How long should I wait to come back if the problems don’t go away?
If you’re getting over-the-counter medication from the pharmacy, you should ask the pharmacist all the questions above.
And remember to tell the pharmacist if your child has allergies.
Unwanted medicine: what to do with it
Having out-of-date or unwanted medicines in your home can be risky, especially if you have young children. And pouring unwanted medicines down the sink or putting them in the bin can harm the environment.
You can return unwanted medicines to your local pharmacy for safe disposal.