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Young Children and Cold Medicines – New Findings

Cold and flu season is upon us.  When we’re unlucky enough to come down with something, it’s almost second nature to reach a multi-symptom cold medicine.  New findings show that, when it comes to children, parents should think twice before giving such medications to their children.

Last year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that leading manufacturers of pediatric cough and cold medicines are adding a warning to their products’ labels, “Don’t use over-the-counter pediatric cough and cold medicines in children younger than 4.”  FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Janet Woodcock, MD, says FDA supports the label “change” and drug manufacturers are doing this voluntarily.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medications not be given to infants and children younger than 2 years because of the risk of life-threatening side effects. Also, several studies show that cold and cough products don’t work in children younger than 6 years and can have potentially serious side effects.

The New York Times recently reported results of a new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study on unintentional medication overdoses in children which “indicates 8 percent of emergency room visits and 14 percent of hospitalizations were caused by parents accidentally overdosing their children.”

The study, which looks at causes for emergency room visits, estimates that 70,000 children under 18 years of age visit emergency rooms annually suffering from unintentional medication overdoses causing adverse drug events. More importantly, 75 percent of the overdoses occurred in children under age 5.

CDC’s web page on child medication safety further indicates that the number one cause of emergency room visits due to adverse drug events in young children under the age of 5 is the unsupervised consumption of medicines.  CDC also notes, according to WebMD, that 7,000 children under 11 go to emergency rooms each year after taking cough and cold medicines. Roughly two-thirds of those adverse drug events occurred after children consumed medication while unsupervised.

CDC recommends the following guidelines when dispensing medications to children:

  • Always recap and store medicines out of the reach and out of sight of children.
  • Carefully administer medicines as directed on the label or as instructed by a physician or pharmacist.
  • Use prescription and over-the-counter medicines only when needed.

Tips for parents:

  • Children should never be left alone with any medicines. If you are giving or taking medicine and you need to do something else, such as answer the phone, take the medicine with you.
  • Do not leave medicines out after using them. Store medicines in lockable medicine cabinets or other childproof cabinets out of reach of young children.
  • Check to make sure medicines you purchase for your child are in child-resistant packaging that you know how to open and close properly.
  • Place the Poison Control Center number, 1-800-222-1222, on or near every home telephone and save this number to your cell phone.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association would add to this:

  • Do not give medicine intended only for adults to a child.
  • Do not use two medicines at the same time which contain the same ingredients.

We say, with children’s’ medicines, “Read the label, recap the bottle, store it away safely; make sure you know what’s in a cough-cold med IF you administer these to your children during the coming cold and flu season. Over-the-counter child meds that used to be considered “safe” may no longer be safe.  So it’s good to be aware and be prepared.

Are Cold Medicines for Kids Safe?

Recently, there has been controversy over the safety and efficacy of many cough and cold medicines for young children.   Last year, the FDA.issued a public health advisory warning against the use of such medicines for children under two.  In October, manufacturers voluntarily changed the labeling and warnings to state that these medicines should not be given to children under four.

The problem is that studies have shown that cough and cold medicines are not effective for young children, and there are approximately 7,000 pediatric emergency room visits per year as a result of adverse reactions.  Most of these visits are the result of unintentional overdosing — parents guess at the dose, or they don’t realize when two medicines contain the same active ingredient.  Studies are currently being done regarding whether these medicines are effective for children under 12, but they won’t be completed for a couple of years.

So, where does that leave us parents?  First, don’t panic, and don’t necessarily clean out your medicine cabinets.  Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Do not give adult medicines to children, no matter how much you cut the dose.
  • Strictly follow dosing instructions.
  • Talk to your pediatrician about which medicines to use and in what amounts.
  • Check the “Drug Facts” section of the label to see what the active ingredients are.  For instance, most of the cough and cold medicines contain some type of pain reliever such as acetomitophine (Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (Advil), in addition to other ingredients for cough or a stuffy nose.
  • Be very careful when giving more than one medicine at a time — this is where accidental overdoses often occur.  Using the example above, a problem could arise if a parent gives their child Advil and then a multi- symptom medicine containing Advil.
  • Realize that these medicines do nothing to cure or shorten colds and the flu.  They only work on the symptoms.  Make sure your child drinks plenty of liquids and rest.

Check back here — the CSB will be monitoring the current studies and announcements regarding cough and cold medicines

So what are the parents out there doing — using these medicines or not?