When faced with an infant with a persistent cough, parents often feel desperate to find a remedy that will restore peace to the household. Such options are limited since a 2008 advisory from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that over-the-counter cough medicines should not be used for children under age 2 because of the risk of life-threatening side effects. These products generally contain no clear dosing instructions for infants, and many contain multiple active ingredients—opening the door for accidental overdose.
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As a first-line home remedy, the American College of Chest Physicians recommends that parents apply a menthol rub to the baby’s chest and feet to soothe cough. A cool-mist humidifier may also be beneficial when placed in the infant’s room, and many of these units contain a reservoir for menthol-scented oil that will disperse in the humidified air.
A teaspoon of honey has been shown to be an effective cough suppressant in children older than 12 months, and this affordable pantry staple is rarely associated with allergic reactions. Due to the risk for botulism, however, you should not give honey to infants under 1 year of age.
Given the FDA’s ominous warning to avoid all cough medicines, you may start combing the market aisles for a safe homeopathic alternative. Numerous “all natural” products are available, but Dr. Alan Woolf, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, warns that many contain unregulated ingredients that may not even be listed on the label. Parents should be wary of unsubstantiated marketing claims and the potential for serious allergic reactions that can occur because a baby’s immune system is not fully developed.
An important step you can take to ease your baby’s cough is to avoid exposure to tobacco and wood smoke, which can irritate the throat and nasal passages. Increased fluid intake is also important—to ease a coughing spell and throughout the day.
You may also find that your baby will sleep better if you elevate the head of the crib mattress to promote sinus drainage that otherwise collects in the throat. You can purchase a crib wedge or create your own by placing a few layers of folded towels under the crib sheet to achieve this gentle elevation—just don’t use pillows or towels directly under your baby’s head because of the risk of suffocation.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
Don’t hesitate to consult your pediatrician for advice, especially if your baby has a fever higher than 100.5 °F, or if you hear any high-pitched sounds or gasps for air during a coughing spell. The cough may be a sign of a bacterial infection, such as pertussis (“whooping cough”) or pneumonia, and appropriate antibiotic therapy may be necessary. Under no circumstances should you give your baby any antibiotics prescribed for someone else.
If your baby’s cough has lasted longer than 4 weeks, your doctor may want to take a chest x-ray or perform spirometry testing to measure lung function. A nagging nighttime cough is sometimes a sign of asthma, which should be treated conservatively under the guidance of an allergy specialist.