Overview of Common Childhood Medications

Common medications for children, include over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, prescription medicines, nutritional supplements (e.g., vitamins, minerals), and complementary and alternative medicines, such as herbal remedies. Although most medications are safe when used as directed, all medicines, including OTC medicines and vitamin supplements, carry some risk for harmful effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children younger than 5 years of age require emergency medical care as a result of an adverse drug event twice as often as older children.

There are several ways for parents and caregivers to help reduce the risk for child drug overdoses and other adverse drug events in children and adolescents. Medications should be used only as directed and should be kept out of the reach of young children. Store medicine in its original packaging and close child-resistant caps properly. Parents should never refer to medicine as "candy" to entice a child to take it.

Other steps that parents and caregivers can take to help make sure medications are used safely in children include the following:

  • Avoid unnecessary medicines. Medications such as antibiotics, cough syrups, and cold medicines do not cure illnesses caused by a virus (e.g., common cold, influenza [flu], viral sore throats) and may be harmful.
  • Read the Drug Fact labels that are provided with over-the-counter medications and the patient information inserts that are included with prescription medications carefully. They contain important information about how to administer the medicine correctly, about how the drug may interact with other medications, about what to avoid while taking the medication, and about common and rare adverse effects.
  • Administer medication in the correct dosage and dose. Dosing instructions often are based on a child's weight or age. Use a measuring device, such as a medicine dropper or syringe, dosing spoon, or medicine cup—not a kitchen teaspoon or tablespoon—for liquid medicines.
  • Never give children medicine that is meant for adults or that has been prescribed for someone else. This can be extremely dangerous and can lead to overdose and other adverse drug reactions.
  • Ask your physician or pharmacist how to dispose of unused medicine and medicine that has passed the expiration date properly. Young children may find and take medicine that has been simply thrown into the trash.
  • Speak with a qualified health care provider or pharmacist about possible side effects and to make sure that all medicines are compatible. Before your child's pediatrician prescribes any medication, make sure he or she knows about all medicines that your child is currently taking (including OTC drugs, dietary supplements, and herbal remedies). Monitor children closely for adverse side effects.
  • Never give products containing aspirin to children under the age of 18. Aspirin increases the risk for a serious condition called Reye syndrome in children following viral infections.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 08 Sep 2015