OTC Caution for Children Renewed as Flu Season Approaches

Ken Haller, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, has an important reminder for parents as cold and flu season approaches: skip the over-the-counter medications for children. Last year, citing concerns over safety and effectiveness, experts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended the agency ban all OTC, multi-symptom cough and cold medicines for children under 6. The recommendation was long overdue, according to Haller.

"Cough and cold medicines were first approved many years ago under the assumption that children's bodies worked like adult ones, but on a smaller scale," Haller said. "They were never tested for safety and effectiveness in children. There are a lot of side effects associated with these medicines."

While infant cough and cold medications were pulled off shelves last year, nearly 800 over-the-counter cough and cold medications still are available for children more than two years old--a decision with which Haller disagrees. "I feel strongly that they should all be taken off the market," he said. "Numerous studies have shown that these do not make children with colds and sore throats feel better any quicker than doing nothing. And over the years, thousands of children have been hospitalized and scores of children have died as a result of taking these drugs because of their side effects and the fact that many of these drugs contain multiple active ingredients, which add up to a harmful dose."

In the first two years of life, it's normal for children to get an average of six significant upper respiratory infections per year. While nothing can cure a cold, Haller suggests safe ways to prevent and treat symptoms of colds and flu, including:

  • Have children vaccinated for the flu.
  • Use cool mist humidifiers whenever it's cold enough outside to turn on the heat indoors. When the weather is cold, the air is dry and will dry out the membranes in the nose, breaking down the child's natural barrier to infection in the nose.
  • Use saline drops and sprays to moisturize the nasal membranes and loosen up mucus.
  • Avoid smoking in the household to reduce environmental irritants.
  • Wash your hands when taking care of children and teach kids to clean their hands before they eat.
  • Make sure children drink fluids and get plenty of rest.

"Parents often feel powerless when their kids are sick and are desperate to help them feel better," Haller said. "But drugs are not the answer for every illness. Not only will these over-the-counter medicines not help your child feel better, but they can be very dangerous, too."

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