The medicine maze

Confused by those bright and shiny rows of over-the-counter medicines that promise to clear your child’s winter coughs and colds as if by magic? Read on to discover the products that really work, and those that are worthless




You'll probably know this best as Calpol but you can buy own-brand equivalents which do the same job and are usually cheaper. It's available in bottles or sachets which are great for long journeys.

It's an efficient painkiller for sore throats, headaches and aching muscles, and also helps to bring down your child's temperature. A virus needs to run its course – nothing can cure it. But paracetamol will help to make children more comfortable. It won’t make them drowsy, but feeling better will help them sleep.

Take care

Any child from three months old should be able to take it, but don't give your child any other products containing paracetamol and always read the label carefully. An overdose is extremely dangerous and can be life-threatening.


The brand name you'll be most familiar with is Nurofen but again, own-brand equivalents are available from high street chemists and you can get them in bottles or sachets.

Like paracetamol, ibuprofen is a painkiller and brings down a temperature. It's particularly good at targeting muscular aches and pains, common in colds and flu. You can alternate between giving your child paracetamol and ibuprofen if he's really miserable as his last dose wears off. They are both painkillers but the body uses different enzymes to break them down, so you can take them in turn. It’s a good idea to stagger the dose - have paracetamol, say, at 8am, then ibuprofen at 11am.

Take care

If you have asthma in the family, be very careful when giving ibuprofen as it can irritate some asthmatics.


You'll probably remember Vicks Vapor Rub from your own childhood but there's plenty more out there now, including own-brand varieties.

These rubs are great for wriggly youngsters as you just rub them on the chest and back before bed, preferably after a nice, warm, steamy bath. They contain soothing oils like eucalyptus which help to ease congestion – children will inhale the oils as they sleep.

Take care

They can irritate the eyes, so keep your child's fingers away from the pot while you're applying them and remember to wash your hands once you've finished.

You'll probably remember Vicks Vapor Rub from your own childhood but there's plenty more out there now, including own-brand varieties.


A tried-and-tested remedy, these can be as simple as a few drops of oil on muslin. Karvol capsules is a popular brand - or there's also a children’s Olbas Oil range.

Like vapour rubs, inhalations work by using oils such as menthol, eucalyptus, or pine to clear your child's nose, making it easier to breathe. They usually smell nice as well, which is a bonus! You can put a few drops on a cloth near your child's bed, use a plug-in vaporiser, or add a few drops to a bowl of hot water so your child can inhale the steam (though this is only suitable for older children).

Take care

If you're putting oil on a cloth, make sure it's well out of your child's reach, as the oils can be irritating to skin and eyes. As with all medicines, keep them well out of harm's way as they're harmful if swallowed. And don't ever be tempted to use an oil burner with a candle in a child's room.


These are just saline – salt water – and are ideal for very small children who can't blow their noses. You'll find plenty of brands to choose from, including Calpol and Nasosal.

They help to unblock a child's nose by thinning the mucus and making it more runny. The ingredients in saline drops are totally natural so this is a very safe product.

Take care

Don't confuse these drops and sprays with decongestant sprays that contain actual drugs and may not be suitable for young children.


Try Benylin's Cough Mixture Syrup or Baby Meltus when a cough is keeping your child awake.

Bear in mind that these don't work for every cough: they are most useful for tickly coughs. They are usually made from natural ingredients like honey and lemon and will help to ease the cough and make your child more comfortable. But if your child has a real hacking cough, you're probably better off using a vapour rub to help break up the congestion.

Take care

Always check the label as many cough medicines aren't recommended for children under six years old.


Antibiotics If you're tempted to rush to the doctor as soon as your child starts sniffing, don't bother. Antibiotics have no effect whatsoever on cold viruses - or, indeed, any virus.

Zinc supplements You might have heard that this can shorten a cold but the evidence is inconclusive.

Virus-killing tissues Don't pay through the nose for these. Just use big, cheap tissues and teach your children to throw them away as soon as they have been used.

Taking lots of Vitamin C supplements Again, there's no evidence that vitamin C prevents or shortens colds. As long as your child is eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, he shouldn't need extra vitamins.

Cough sweets These need to be sucked for a long period to be effective and most kids will either crunch them up or spit them out. Most work simply by stimulating saliva to ease throat pain and a wine gum will do the job just as well.

Throat sprays Most of these are only suitable for adults. Paracetamol will be just as effective in children to relieve throat pain.

The average child gets eight colds in a year. You can’t cure a common cold virus, but there's plenty you can do to make your child more comfortable.


* Steam is one of the oldest and best remedies for congestion. Just add a few drops of any decongesting oil – such as menthol oil – to a bowl of hot water, put a towel over your child's head and get him to breathe in the vapours. Don't try this with very young children – put them in the bath instead.

* Propping your child up is a very simple way of easing a blocked nose. For kids still in a cot and too young for a pillow, you can now buy special cot blocks to raise the head of the cot. Older kids can have an extra pillow.

* Vaseline or unperfumed lip salves are great for stopping your child getting a sore nose from frequent blowing and wiping – just apply frequently around the nostrils and on the top lip. It helps to put moisture back into the skin and stops it from drying out.

* Honey is soothing for sore throats as it helps to coat them. Don't give honey to children under one year, as in very rare cases it can lead to a serious illness called infant botulism.


The average child gets eight colds in a year. You can’t cure a common cold virus, but there's plenty you can do to make your child more comfortable.


I CAN DO IT all by myself!

Your child needs your support every step of the way on the exciting road to independence. …


Making milestones

Everything children do, from smiling for the first time to saying their first word, is a t…


Happy families!

If kids are happy, so are the parents! Here are our 15 ways to play Happy Families this mo