The positive benefit of removing over-the-counter cold remedies for very young children

January 31, 2012  |  General

No pediatrician I know has ever liked any of the many over-the-counter cough and cold remedies very much, especially for very young children. There never has been any evidence that they help cold symptoms, and what’s in them (typically a decongestant and an antihistamine) can cause actual harm to children. Risking harm for dubious benefit is never a good trade-off in medical practice. I’ve seen more than a few kids over the years need to be admitted to the PICU because they have overdosed on these medications, either because they got into the meds and took them themselves or because their parents miscalculated the dose and gave too much.

Recognizing the problem, the makers of these products agreed voluntarily several years ago to take the ones intended for children less than two years of age off the market. These were usually various kinds of drops. Did this new policy have any effect? A recent study in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests that it did.

The authors looked at emergency room visits before and after the product withdrawal went into effect. They sampled sixty-three representative pediatric emergency rooms across the country. What they found is that the number of trips to the ER for untoward effects from these medications — overdoses or just funny reactions — dropped by half. Such ER visits for children older than two did not change. Of course, as we say, correlation doesn’t prove causation, so it may have been a coincidence. But I don’t think so — I think the new policy helped.

It’s good that ER visits from the ill effects of over-the-counter cold remedies dropped for young children, but there still were too many of them — 1,248 in the sample hospitals. That’s a lot of risk for no benefit at all. For children over two years of age, there were nearly ten thousand ER visits for this problem. That concerns me just as much. Roughly two-thirds of the cases were ones in which unsupervised children took the medicine themselves, but fully a third of them were because parents gave the children the medication. My advice — don’t use these agents unless your doctor suggests them (and fewer and fewer do), and never in children less than four.

Every parent should know where to find the number of their local poison control center — it’s generally in the front pages of the telephone book. Call them if you have any questions about drug effects — they are always very helpful and you might save yourself and your child a trip to the emergency department.

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