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Your complete back-to-school guide to medications (and more)

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Find out what to stock up on before the kids head back to the classroom — so you’re ready for whatever ailments come their way.
Written by Debbie Koenig
Updated on August 17, 2021

Parents around the country are gearing up for another year of school. Which means that regardless of whether COVID-19 rates are climbing or falling in your area, you still have to worry about common childhood ailments such as colds, scrapes and tummy aches. For a little extra peace of mind, start the year off with a well-stocked medicine cabinet.

Here are a handful of categories and medications to consider. Check expiration dates on everything you already own and replace whatever is past its prime. If you have the items on this list, you’ll be ready for almost anything. (The Optum Store can make your job even easier. Shop baby and child care now.)

Pain and fever relief

When your kid isn’t feeling well — whether it’s from a virus that’s going around or a toothache — make these over-the-counter (OTC) medications your go-tos:

Jonathan Auth, MD, considers acetaminophen the first line of defense against fever and most pain. Dr. Auth is a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s in Orange County, California. Acetaminophen is a safe, effective option and a good place to start. Ibuprofen works on fevers, too. But it can be even better at controlling inflammation. That makes it great for treating injuries such as a twisted ankle.

For a fever, as long as your child is comfortable, you don’t need to medicate, says Dr. Auth. Besides, medication won’t make the infection that’s causing the fever go away any faster. But if they’re feeling achy or are having trouble sleeping, acetaminophen and ibuprofen can both improve comfort. Whichever you choose, be sure you’re not giving them any other medications that contain it. Too much can be dangerous.

Taming allergies

If you know your child is at risk of allergic reactions, make sure that any prescriptions they have are refilled and ready to go before the first day of school. (EpiPen® auto-injectors are still really expensive. Here are ways to save.) And as always, seek medical care if you suspect they have a food allergy.

To prepare for mild symptoms such as sneezing and rashes, you’ve got some options.

Diphenhydramine (Benadryl®)

This OTC medicine is an antihistamine. That means it fights the body’s allergic response. “If you want to have something on hand for emergency situations, Benadryl® will work in a pinch,” says Dr. Auth. “It costs less than other medications, it’s a little bit faster-acting, and it’s a little bit more powerful.”

But beware: It can make your child sleepy. Because it also has some mild decongestant properties, Dr. Auth recommends it for children whose stuffy nose is keeping them up at night. (If you’ve ever taken Tylenol® PM, diphenhydramine is the ingredient that helps you sleep.) For kids with seasonal allergies who need to stay alert, Dr. Auth recommends Children’s Claritin® (loratadine) or Children’s Zyrtec® (cetirizine) — 2 antihistamines that won’t make them drowsy.

If your child takes prescription allergy medication, Optum Perks can help you save on that, too. Download the app to access coupons you can use at pharmacies nationwide.

Hydrocortisone 1%

Keep a tube of this topical cream on hand for smaller skin irritations such as poison ivy or bug bites. “It’s a mild steroid, and applying it locally is super safe,” says Dr. Auth. “Apply it a couple of times a day.” Learn more about treating poison ivy and other itchy conditions here.

Coughs and colds

Cold medication is almost never recommended for children under 6, “not necessarily because it’s dangerous, but mostly because it just doesn’t work,” says Dr. Auth. Most of the time, your child will get over a cold with no help at all within a week or two. And while medication might relieve some of the symptoms, it won’t speed up that process.

The best thing you can do is make sure they’re comfortable, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics. That includes staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest. Some other things that can help them find relief include:


For coughs in children older than 1 year, try honey. (Note: Honey isn’t safe for babies under age 1.) Research has found it to be just as effective as OTC cough syrup, notes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And for upper respiratory tract infections, honey appears to work better than the usual care, according to a review of studies published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. Try offering your child a teaspoon at a time, says Dr. Auth. You can use it as needed, even hourly.

In general, you don’t want to suppress a productive cough either. “It’s one of your body’s natural protective mechanisms to get the phlegm out,” says Dr. Auth.

Honey also works to treat mild sore throats. For children age 5 and older, lozenges can help, too. But Dr. Auth says anything that coats the back of the throat will do the job. If it’s easier (and cheaper) to keep lollipops on hand for children, go for it.

Humidifier or nasal spray

“Particularly in young kids, their nasal passages are so small, and thicker secretions can make them more likely to plug up,” says Dr. Auth. “And that’s what makes kids really uncomfortable — not being able to breathe through their nose.”

Enter: the humidifier. “It can really help thin some of the thicker secretions,” he says. The AAP suggests using a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room. (Hot-water vaporizers pose a burn risk.) If the maintenance of cleaning the humidifier each day to stop bacteria and mold growth is a bit too much, you can also try saline nasal sprays to loosen up the gunk.

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Upset stomachs and nausea

To soothe most tummy aches, Dr. Auth recommends just 1 OTC medication. And it’s something you may already have: calcium carbonate. That’s a chewable antacid such as Tums®. “If you’ve got some mild inflammation in your tummy, stomach acids can be more painful. Calcium carbonate reduces the acid,” says Dr. Auth. For very young children, look for Tums Kids. “It’s basically a calcium supplement, so it’s safe.” That said, if the need for Tums extends to a few days, it’s best to talk to your child’s doctor.

For diarrhea, Dr. Auth doesn’t recommend medication. “Like a cough, it’s your body’s natural mechanism to flush the virus out,” he says. But diarrhea with vomiting can lead to dehydration, so an oral solution such as Pedialyte® can be helpful. If you’re short on space, though, this one is optional. “Slow sips of water can still get the job done — just not quite as efficiently.”

Kids who get motion sickness may benefit from nondrowsy or children’s-strength Dramamine®. But if your child is vomiting on the school bus every day, speak to your doctor. “That warrants a deeper dive,” says Dr. Auth.

Skin and wound care

A tumble here, a scrape there. Yep, they’re inevitable. Keep these OTC items on hand for when it’s time to save the day.

Antibiotic ointment

A triple-antibiotic ointment (such as Neosporin®) can treat most cuts and scrapes. “It’s super versatile. You can put it on even mild abrasions,” says Dr. Auth. “We’re trying to prevent cuts from getting infected, and kids don’t always wash their hands [and] they’re out playing in the dirt.” He recommends using it as a barrier for at least the first 24 hours.


If you’ve got infants or tweens and teens, you might want to keep a tube of clotrimazole (such as Lotrimin®) on hand. An antifungal, it can help clear up stubborn diaper rashes where yeast may be involved. And for older kids, use it to treat conditions such as athlete’s foot, jock itch or ringworm.


You might not think of sunscreen as a medication. But because it makes medical claims, the FDA regulates it as one. It comes in 2 types:

  • Physical sunscreens. These use minerals that sit on top of the skin and keep the sun’s rays from making contact.
  • Chemical sunscreens. These use chemicals that absorb UV rays before they can damage their skin.

Physical sunscreens are safe for infants over 6 months old. (Zinc oxide, a common ingredient in physical sunscreens, is also used for diaper rash.) Chemical sunscreens are less messy, so many parents (and kids) prefer them. Whichever you choose, Dr. Auth recommends using one with SPF 40 or higher every day. “The important thing is to reapply it,” he says. “If you’re spending the day outside, use your phone’s timer to remind you every 2 hours.” (You can find many low-priced sunscreen options at the Optum Store.)

Tools and supplies

There are lots of items you could keep on hand, but here are a few necessities.


Beyond regular adhesive bandages, Dr. Auth recommends gauze bandages and Coban™ wraps. These wraps use a technology invented by 3M™ to stick only to itself. “They’re great for holding gauze bandages in awkward places where a Band-Aid® won’t stick,” he says. That means your active kid can still play soccer without forgoing a protective layer on their scraped knee.


You probably have seen businesses using temporal artery thermometers to screen people for COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean you need one at home. “I still recommend good old-fashioned digital oral thermometers,” says Dr. Auth. “They’re reliable and accurate, and they’re super cheap.” Try this very speedy option.

That said, if you’ve got a particularly squirmy little one who has trouble holding his mouth closed, one of the surface thermometers makes sense.


Keep a pair in the cabinet for removing splinters and ticks.

Ice packs

These are great for curbing swelling and inflammation. You don’t need anything fancy (frozen peas do work, after all). But you may want to consider keeping instant cold packs in your home’s first-aid kit or in your car, just in case.

When your child is sick, the last thing you want to worry about is the cost of their prescriptions. Download the free Optum Perks app today to save up to 80% at more than 64,000 pharmacies nationwide.

Additional sources
Overview of caring for children’s colds:
American Association of Pediatrics
When to give kids medicine for coughs and colds: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Honey and children’s coughs: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2018). “Honey for acute cough in children”
Honey and upper respiratory tract infections: BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine (2020). “Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis”