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Over-the-Counter Medicine: When to Give Your Child Tylenol or Ibuprofen

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A male toddler is taking a sip of some medicine

Children’s Tylenol and ibuprofen are over-the-counter medications used to help reduce fevers and relive pain, but your child may not always need them if they’re sick. Erin Gholson, ARNP, UnityPoint Health, explains when parents may want to give their child a dose, when to hold off and some alternative ways to help your kiddo feel better when dealing with a pesky virus. 

What are Common illnesses Tylenol and Ibuprofen Treat in Children?

Some common illnesses in children that can cause a fever include: 

“Parents should know Tylenol and ibuprofen will not treat their child’s illness itself but can help them feel more comfortable. Generally, a temperature greater than 100.4 is considered a fever. In infants less than 3 months old, a rectal temperature is most accurate. A baby who’s 28 days old or younger and has a fever should be seen by a doctor immediately, because they have an increased risk for complications. Infants 3 months old or younger with a fever should also be evaluated by a doctor,” Gholson says. 

What are Some Alternative Medications You Can Get Over the Counter for Kids?

Tylenol and ibuprofen are the most common medications to help ease discomfort from pain and fever in sick children. Ibuprofen should not be given to infants until they're 6 months old. Tylenol can be given to babies, but if they're younger than 3 months old, it should only be given under their doctor’s direction. Tylenol is the brand name for acetaminophen, and ibuprofen is the generic name for Advil or Motrin. If you can’t find the brand name, look for the generic version. 

If your child is 12 years old or older, Gholson suggests using naproxen for pain or fever — an over-the-counter medication similar to ibuprofen. 

“Children should not take ibuprofen and naproxen at the same time. Naproxen can only be given every 8-12 hours while ibuprofen can be given every 6-8 hours. Both ibuprofen and naproxen should be taken with food to prevent an upset stomach.”

Additionally, Gholson says parents should never give aspirin to their child unless directed by their doctor, because it can cause Reye's Syndrome — a serious condition that causes problems with the brain and liver.

How to Reduce a Fever in Your Child Naturally 

It’s normal for any parent to want their child to feel better fast when they’re sick, but not all fevers need to be treated with medication.  

“A fever is the body’s natural response to an infection. Give medication based on the child’s behavior, not by the number on the thermometer. A child who’s playful, eating, drinking and sleeping well — but has a fever — likely doesn’t need medication. If your child is uncomfortable and not drinking well, they may benefit from Tylenol or ibuprofen,” Gholson says. 

Other Natural Cold and Flu Remedies for Children  

If your child’s cold or flu symptoms hit when your medicine cabinet isn’t fully stocked, there are other things you can do to give them some relief. 

  • Keep your child hydrated with water or Pedialyte 
  • Make sure they get lots of rest
  • Dress children in light clothing if they feel warm 
  • Offer a light blanket if your child says they’re cold, even if they have a fever 
  • Keep the environment cool but comfortable
  • Keep the air moist with a cool mist humidifier
  • Use nasal saline for a stuffy nose
  • Try a nasal suction device to clear out nasal secretions  
  • Remind older children to blow their noses to prevent post-nasal drainage, which can irritate the throat and increase coughing
  • Lay a cool washcloth on their forehead, unless your child starts to shiver 
  • Draw a warm bath or, for babies and toddlers, fill the bath or baby tub with an inch or two of water and use a washcloth to spread it around the child’s body for 30-45 minutes until their temperature decreases — watch to make sure they aren’t shivering or uncomfortable
  • Don’t apply rubbing alcohol to the skin or use alcohol baths, because this can cause serious problems
  • Try honey for a natural remedy to decrease coughing and soothe a sore throat

“Honey should not be given to infants under one year old because of a risk for botulism. Try a half-teaspoon of honey for children ages 1 to 5, one teaspoon of honey for children ages 6 to 11 and two teaspoons of honey for children who are 12 years old and up. You can give it to your child straight from the container or mix it with warm water or tea,” Gholson says. 

Natural remedies to sooth a sore throat in a child include eating cold or frozen desserts, sucking on ice and drinking warm or cold beverages.  

“Children who are 5 years old and up can suck on hard candy or throat lozenges. Children older than 6 can gargle one-fourth to one-half a teaspoon of salt mixed in eight ounces of warm water. Because of choking hazards, keep an eye on your child to make sure they’re safe doing either.”

As far as the old wives’ tale about putting vapor rub on a child’s feet to help them breathe better, Gholson says it isn’t necessarily true and to apply it to the chest and neck instead.  

“You can then try covering their chest and neck with a warm, dry towel. This way, the vapors can easily reach the nose and mouth, and inhaling the vapors makes people feel less congested. When used on the chest and neck overnight, it may reduce cough and improve sleep — but can be applied up to three times throughout the day. Vapor rub, such as Vicks, shouldn’t be used on children younger than 2 years old. Don’t apply it to the face or leave children unattended with vapor rub, because it can cause eye damage and is dangerous if swallowed.”

Can You Give Children Adult Tylenol?

Tylenol comes in three different forms: liquid, chewable and pills to swallow. Gholson says tablets, which adults typically take, come in regular strength, 325 mg, and extra strength, 500 mg. 

“If the liquid suspension or chewable tablets aren’t available, the adult Tylenol may be an option for a child. If your little one is at least 48 pounds (about 6 years old), they can take the regular strength Tylenol as long as they can swallow pills. Children who weigh more than 95 pounds (about 12 years old) can take the extra strength Tylenol as long as they can swallow pills as well. Parents must carefully read the directions on the packaging and should not cut or split pills to create a smaller dose. If they have questions, they should speak with a pharmacist or their child’s doctor.”

Does Tylenol or Ibuprofen Help Prevent Febrile Seizures in a Child?

While the idea of your child experiencing a febrile seizure is frightening, they’re rare, and Gholson says regularly giving fever-reducing medications doesn’t prevent them from occurring.

Parents should talk to their child’s UnityPoint Health provider if they’re unsure about how to best treat their cold or flu symptoms. Children with underlying health conditions may need a treatment plan specific to their medical needs.