Cold medicines for children: What are the risks?

Cough medicine3
Cough medicine3

Strategies for Well-Being

The common cold season is here, and if you have children, you will likely feel their suffering from these annoying upper respiratory tract viral infections. Children experience more colds, about six to 10 annually, than adults. With each cold producing symptoms of nasal congestion, runny nose, cough and mild fever lasting up to seven to 10 days, it may seem that children are nearly continuously sick. It’s not surprising that adults often turn to over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to relieve their little ones’ symptoms.

Every parent dreads their child getting sick, even if it’s “just” a cold. At best, you have a child not feeling well, not eating or sleeping well – a child missing school and parents missing work. At worst, a cold occasionally develops into something more, requiring a visit to the doctor and medical attention. What’s an overworked, sleep-deprived parent to do? Well, here are some facts and practical tips to help keep your family healthy this cold and flu season.

Colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Viruses are one type of germ that infects cells and makes us ill. Here are some common illnesses from viruses:

• Head cold. Many colds are caused by rhinoviruses. “Rhino” means “nose” in Greek, so these are viruses that infect the nose. We get runny and stuffy noses when we have colds because that is where the virus is setting up shop.

• Stomach flu. Rhinoviruses are actually one of a group of viruses called enteroviruses. “Entero” means “intestine” in Greek. These viruses infect our gastrointestinal tract, causing sore throat, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea – an illness some people call the stomach flu.

• Influenza. A stomach “bug” is different from the actual flu, which is caused by the influenza virus. Influenza comes from the Italian word for influence of the stars. In medieval Europe, people thought outbreaks of colds and flu were caused by the movement of the stars.

More than 40 percent of parents reported giving their children under age 4 cough medicine or multi-symptom cough and cold medicine, according to the latest University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. Twenty-five percent gave those children decongestants.

Decongestants, antihistamines and cough medicines also can cause trouble – and should not be given to children ages 2 and under, the FDA says. Manufacturers stopped making them for infants and toddlers after deaths were reported. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend them in children under age 4. Even use in older children requires a lot of caution.

One reason is that children often get medication from more than one person – parents and other caregivers. The frequent result: They get doubled-dosed.

So, how do you protect yourself and your children? Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing! Cold and flu viruses are not airborne. You can’t catch a cold just by being in the same room as someone who’s sick. You generally have to come into direct contact with their oral or nasal secretions. So, if someone with a cold sneezes into their hand and then pushes open a door with their virus-covered hand, and minutes later your child pushes open the same door and then eats a sandwich – she just ate a virus sandwich.

The side effects from use of cough and cold medicines in young children may include allergic reactions, increased or uneven heart rate, drowsiness or sleeplessness, slow and shallow breathing, confusion or hallucinations, convulsions, nausea and constipation.

Good hand washing is the key to helping reduce the spread of cold and flu viruses. Teach your children to wash their hands frequently with soap and water – and always before eating, after using the restroom and after being in a public place.

Did you know that children’s cough and cold medicines were never tested by the FDA for safety and efficacy, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers them ineffective and dangerous?

Evidence indicates that children’s cold medicines don’t really help and may pose a real (although small) risk of side effects, particularly to young children. Thousands of children under age 12 go to emergency rooms each year after taking cough and cold medicines, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Avoid combination cold medicines for children that might contain two, three or even four different medicines in addition to acetaminophen/ibuprofen. Most of the extra medicines have unwanted side effects and aren’t very effective in children anyway.

The Food and Drug Administration warns that over-the-counter medications can produce potentially life-threatening side effects. Parents need to be aware that many OTC cough and cold products contain multiple ingredients which can lead to accidental overdosing.

Products like these may work for adults, and parents think it could help their children as well. But what’s good for adults is not always good for children. Kids aren’t just tiny adults – these medicines haven’t been proven safe for them.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional.


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