Medicines aren't always needed for childhood illnesses. Most illnesses get better by themselves or by using therapies that do not involve medicines.
Some medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are often used to relieve the discomfort caused by a high temperature or pain. Both paracetamol and ibuprofen are safe and effective. Always have one or both stored in a safe place at home.
Some children, for example those with asthma, may not be able to take ibuprofen, so check with your pharmacist or doctor.
Don't give aspirin to children under 16 years, unless directed by your doctor. It has been linked with a rare but dangerous illness, called Reye's syndrome.
If you buy over-the-counter medicines, such as analgesics, always follow the written instructions carefully and use dosages recommended for children of different ages. Ask your pharmacist for advice.
Analgesics are painkillers that you should only give to your child if pain is causing them obvious distress.
If you use an analgesic, it is very important to stay within the recommended dose. Too much can be dangerous, even fatal. Frequent use, even at the recommended dose, can also be harmful to your child.
In Australia, the most commonly used analgesics for children are paracetamol (e.g. Panadol) and or ibuprofen (e.g. Nurofen).
Paracetamol can be given to children aged over 1 month for pain and symptoms of fever. Make sure you’ve got the right strength for your child's age and weight as overdosing can be dangerous. Babies aged under 1 month should only be given paracetamol under medical supervision.
Read and follow the directions on the label carefully. If you aren’t sure, check with your doctor or pharmacist.
The Australian College of Nursing advises against routinely giving medicines solely to reduce fever to children who have no signs of distress. Talk to your doctor or visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website for more information.
If you're breastfeeding, ask your midwife or doctor for advice before taking paracetamol.
Ibuprofen can be given for pain and symptoms of fever in children aged 3 months and over who weigh more than 5kg. Make sure you’ve got the right strength for your child's age and weight as overdosing can be dangerous. Read and follow the directions on the label carefully. If you aren’t sure, check with your doctor or pharmacist. Avoid ibuprofen if your child has asthma, unless advised by your doctor, and don’t give ibuprofen to any child who is dehydrated.
If a doctor prescribes medicine for your child, they should tell you:
- the full name of the medicine and what illness it treats
- how often and for how long it should be taken
- if it is best taken before, during or after meals
- any possible side effects
It’s important to tell your doctor about any other medicine your child is taking, including those bought over the counter, such as painkillers. Also let the doctor know if your child has any allergies.
If your child has difficulty swallowing pills, ask your doctor if the prescribed medicine comes in another form. Small children sometimes spit medicines out or refuse to swallow them. If this happens and you think your child is not receiving the recommended dose of medicine, ask your doctor for advice.
Only give your child medicine prescribed by your doctor or supplied by a pharmacist for your child. Never use medicines prescribed for anyone else.
Read more about how to give medications to children in this Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne leaflet.
Dealing with side effects
If you think a medicine is not working or your child has side effects, such as rashes, stomach pains, diarrhoea or drowsiness, let your doctor know. If there are severe side effects, contact the doctor immediately. Don’t stop the medicine or change the dose, except on medical advice, as this may harm your child.
Keep a note of the name of the medicine in your child's health record so you can avoid it in future. Most states provide new parents with a child health record. If in doubt, check with your pharmacist or doctor.
Children don’t often need antibiotics to manage common self-limiting infections such as a simple cold. Most childhood infections are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only treat illnesses caused by bacteria, not viruses.
If you’re offered a prescription, especially an antibiotic, talk to your doctor about why it’s needed, how it will help and whether there are any alternatives. Ask about any possible side effects (for example, whether it will make your child sleepy or irritable).
If your child is prescribed antibiotics, it is important that you follow your doctor’s advice on when, how and for how long they should take them. Your child may seem better after 2 or 3 days, but if your doctor has said they should take them for 5 days, they must carry on taking the medicine. Otherwise any remaining bacteria may develop resistance to the medicine and create problems for treatment if the infection happens again.
Medication for other problems
Constipation: A child who does not have a bowel motion every day is not necessarily constipated. If your child feels pain or discomfort from constipation, it is best not to give them over-the-counter laxatives. Instead, see your doctor to find the cause of the problem and get the right treatment.
Constipation problems can be kept to a minimum if your child eats enough fibre, which means plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread and cereals. Drinking plenty of water and regular exercise is also helpful.
Sleeping problems: If your child has problems sleeping, talk to your doctor or child health nurse.
Unless medically advised to, it is best not to give sedating antihistamines such as Vallergan or Phenergan to children, especially babies, as they may be unsafe. They can also cause over-activity and nightmares.
Make sure you know how much and how often to give a medicine. Writing it in your child’s health record may help you remember. Never give the medicine more frequently than recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.
With liquids, always measure out the right dose for your child’s age and weight. The instructions will be on the bottle. If you are not sure check with your doctor or pharmacist.
Sometimes, liquid medicine may have to be given using a special spoon or liquid medicine measure. This allows you to give small doses of medicine more accurately.
Never use a teaspoon as they vary in size. Ask your pharmacist to explain how a measure should be used. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions supplied with the measure, and give the exact dose stated on the medicine bottle. If in doubt, ask the pharmacist for help.
- Keep all medicines out of your child’s reach and out of sight if possible. The kitchen is a good place to keep medicines as it's easy for you to keep an eye on them there. Put them in a place where they won't get warm.
- Keep all medicines in the containers they came in.
- Don’t use medicines past their use-by date. Ask your pharmacist to dispose of out-of-date medicines.
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Last reviewed: October 2020