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What Should I Do if I Can’t Find Cold & Flu Medicines for My Child?

Why Are There Shortages of Cold & Flu Medicines?

As respiratory and other illnesses continue to surge and winter begins, many stores and pharmacies are struggling to keep children’s cold and flu medicines in stock. Even antibiotics seem to be in short supply. This is likely due to children getting sick earlier with seasonal infections such as RSV, the flu, and the common cold, increasing the demand for medicines to ease symptoms.

What Can Help if I Can't Find Cold & Flu Medicines?

Here are some ways to handle the current shortage:

  • Check with your doctor if you’re not sure whether your child’s symptoms need medical treatment. Not all fevers or other symptoms need to be treated with medicine.
  • If your child isn’t too uncomfortable, these home remedies might help:
    • Encourage them to rest.
    • Offer lots of liquids to drink.
    • Relieve a stuffy nose with saline (saltwater) drops in the nostrils, a cool-mist humidifier, or a steamy bathroom.
    • Run a warm bath or use a heating pad to soothe aches and pains. A lukewarm bath can also help to reduce fever.
    • Try honey to soothe a sore throat or stubborn cough in children older than 1 year of age. (Never give honey to children younger than 1 year old because it can cause botulism.)
  • Use a different medicine if you can’t find what you’re looking for. For example, you can give acetaminophen (such as Tylenol or a store brand) instead of ibuprofen (such as Advil, Motrin, or a store brand), or vice versa, for symptoms like fever or pain.
  • Pay attention to doses and daily limits, especially if you use an unfamiliar medicine. These depend on a child’s weight. Too little medicine might not help, and too much can be harmful. Always check the bottle and ask the doctor or the pharmacist if you have questions.
  • Use adult tablets or capsules if the dose works for your child. If your child can’t swallow pills, you can crush tablets or pour the capsule's content into your child’s favorite foods or drinks.
  • If your child needs half the adult dose, you can split tablets in half. But don’t try to split capsules filled with powder or gel. It’s too hard to divide their contents properly to get the right dose.
  • If you have an expired medicine, ask your doctor if it’s OK to give. This might be fine for medicine that expired recently, but know that expired medicines may not work as well.

Some other things to keep in mind about kids and medicines:

  • Children under 6 years old shouldn’t take cough or cold medicines. They’re of little benefit to young kids and can have serious side effects. Check with your doctor for older kids.
  • Many cough and cold products for children have more than one ingredient, which might increase the chances of accidental overdose if taken with another medicine.
  • Don’t give aspirin to kids or teens. It's linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.
  • Don’t give your child medicines that were prescribed to someone else. Even if two people have the same illness, they may need different drugs with different dosages and directions.

What Else Should I Know?

The companies that make medicines to help with cold, flu, and RSV symptoms are working hard to meet demand. They are hopeful that the current shortage won’t last long.

In the meantime, these precautions can help protect your family from colds, the flu, and other infections:

  • Everyone age 6 months and older should get the annual flu vaccine and covid vaccines and boosters.
  • Wash hands well and often.
  • Avoid people who appear sick.
  • Clean things that get touched a lot (like doorknobs, counters, phones, etc.).

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Dec 23, 2022

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