Want to keep your kids off drugs? The place to start is with your own medicine cabinet. So say a growing number of health practitioners that are viewing the recent proliferation of medications being targeted at kids with alarm and urging parents to turn first to common-sense home remedies or natural alternatives when possible.
“We tend to be a nation of pill-takers, who turn to medication whenever we need relief for anything,” says Dana Point, California, pediatrician Robert Sears, co-author of the new book, The Portable Pediatrician. “If we can increase the use of our skills as parents in using time-tested home remedies to help our kids feel better, we can rely less on pills.”
Because children metabolize drugs differently than adults do, cases of lingering side effects, like grogginess or hyperactivity, and accidental overdoses are widespread. Poison control facilities nationwide received 30,000 calls regarding pediatric cetaminophen alone in 2009, and roughly 7,000 kids end up in emergency rooms each year due to cough and cold medicine overdoses. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received reports of 14 deaths and 74 non-fatal adverse events due to acetaminophen-dosing errors.
According to a 2010 report by Orlando, Florida-based Medco Health Solutions Inc., children’s drugs now constitute the fastest growing segment of the pharmaceutical industry, with sales increasing by 10.8 percent in 2009 over 2008, and usage by children rising four times faster than for the general population during the same period.
One in four children under 10 and one-third of adolescents ages 10 to 19 take at least one prescription medication on an ongoing basis, according to the report. The number of minors taking drugs for respiratory problems is up 42 percent since 2001 and those medicated for the chronic heartburn of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is up 147 percent.
Market research firm IMS Health reports that spending on non-prescription pain medication for children spiked from $191 million in 2005 to $250 million in 2010. Despite three years of government warnings about potential dangers, including seizures and death, of giving over-the-counter cold and flu medications to children under age 2, 61 percent of parents do it anyway, according to a recent national poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Meanwhile, new ad campaigns marketing drugs for kids continue to proliferate. Publisher Scholastic, Inc. was criticized recently for distributing coupons for the allergy medicine Children’s Claritin in its elementary school newsletter distributed to kids.
“I find it very concerning,” says pediatrician Hilary McClafferty, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Some drug companies are exploiting parents at a vulnerable time, preying upon their feeling that they need to do something to make their child feel better immediately.”
Why shouldn’t a worried, sleep-deprived mom or dad reach for a quick fix to placate a miserable little one in the middle of the night? At times, medications are warranted, says McClafferty, particularly in the case of strep throat, which can lead to serious health problems when left unchecked.
But routinely medicating away symptoms can interfere with the body’s natural protective mechanisms, McClafferty says. For instance, cough medicine can inhibit the body’s natural effort to clear mucous from the lungs, prolonging congestion; also, suppressing mild fevers with drugs can sabotage the body’s own defense against infection.
“Even the conventional medical world has begun to focus on this. They are realizing many of these drugs are not very effective and they can cause toxicity in young patients,” says Matthew Baral, a doctor of naturopathy and president of the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
For example, according to a 2011 review in the online journal of the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians, antihistamines can lead to sedation, constipation, drying of the mucous membranes and at higher doses, hallucinations in kids. Decongestants can increase heart rate and lead to “rebound congestion,” or a worsening of symptoms after a child stops taking the drugs. Proton-pump inhibitors, approved in 2008 for GERD in babies as young as 12 months, have been shown to boost levels of harmful intestinal bacteria and may increase fracture risk later in life, according to a study recently published in Annals of Family Medicine.
In 2008, the FDA advised that cough and cold medicine should not be used for children under 2, and called on companies to revise their dosage instructions to indicate this more clearly. In March, 2011, it went so far as to pull hun- dreds of prescription cold medications off the market, with FDA spokesperson Deborah M. Autor telling The New York Times that, “We don’t know what’s in them, whether they work properly or how they are made.”
While McClafferty is pleased with the FDA’s recent actions, she remains leery, saying, “I approach all over-the-counter medications
for children with great caution and rarely recommend their use.”
Here are some alternatives to try. Remember that many herbs have not been tested for safety specifically for children, so check with a health practitioner first.
For quick relief, grate a potato or some leaves of plantain to create a poultice and place it on the spot of the bite. “It will draw off some of the itching and swelling,” says Baral. Don’t forget two of the lowest-tech and natural remedies, mud and ice.
“It’s important to know that most fevers don’t need to be treated unless they are really bothering the child,” advises Sears. “Fever helps the body to fight off infection and may keep the child subdued so she can rest and recover.” He recommends tepid baths, cold cloths on the forehead, and calling the doctor if a fever persists for three days or if it rises above 103 degrees. Herbalist Brigitte Mars, author of The Country Almanac of Home Remedies, suggests diaphoretic herbs like peppermint, ginger and elderflower, in teas, which prompt perspiration and enable the body to cool down naturally.
Cough and Congestion
Apply an herbal vapor rub of menthol and tea tree oil to the bottom of the child’s feet and put their socks back on. The decongesting menthol vapor will help them to breathe and the antimicrobial properties of the tea tree oil will be absorbed through their skin, says Mars. For nasal decongestion, try irrigating the child’s nose with a cleansing neti pot. Sears recommends kid versions of herbal remedies Sinupret and Bronchipret
Diarrhea and Constipation
“Probiotics are the most extensively researched remedy we have out there for diarrhea,” says Baral. Studies in the journal Pediatrics have shown probiotics to shorten bouts of diarrhea in infants and school-age children, and prevent the onset of antibiotic-induced diarrhea in kids. Look for yogurt, powder or capsules containing 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU) of Lactobacillus GG. Sears suggests the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) to quell diarrhea. For constipation, reach for apricots, peaches, pears, plums and vitamin C.
Drop four drops of warm mullein garlic oil into the ear. Sears says the warm oil will calm the inflamed eardrum and the antibiotic in the garlic will get to work on the infection. Olive oil will work in a pinch.
While it’s common for kids between the ages of 3 and 5 or 8 and 12 to complain of dull aches deep in their legs, there is little consensus about what causes them. Mars has found that it helps to supplement their diet with calcium and magnesium supplements in kid-friendly powdered form, or foods that contain these nutrients.
Deglycerrhizinated licorice (DGL), slippery elm and aloe all may be able to help soothe inflamed esophageal tissue, says Baral, “But they need to be given under a doctor’s supervision.” Also take a hard look at dietary triggers: Common culprits include dairy, chocolate, tomatoes and mint.
One of the most commonly recommended natural treatments for addressing seasonal allergy symptoms is stinging nettle, believed to modulate the production of the histamine that prompts noses to run and eyes to water and has been shown to be safe in adults. It comes in tincture, tea and capsule form. Mars also likes Allergena region-specific homeopathic allergy medicines, which deliver traces of local pollen to help the body develop immunity to them. Alternately, substitute citrus juices for milk during allergy season. Vitamin C has been shown to normalize histamine levels, while dairy products can boost mucous production.
Stir one teaspoon of salt into eight ounces of water and gargle. “It is antiseptic and will make the pain go away,” counsels Mars. She also recommends using the infection-fighting herb Isatis root, in tincture or capsule form. McClafferty says to try a spoonful of honey; it has antimicrobial properties and may act as a cough suppressant.
Oil of clove contains a compound called eugenol that serves as a natural pain killer and antibacterial agent. Baral recommends mixing no more than one drop of clove oil with honey and rubbing it on the gums (not recommended for children under 12 months). Or, saturate a clean cloth with calming chamomile tea or wintergreen tea, a natural analgesic, and let the baby chew on it.
When children suffer from common ailments, it is natural for parents to wish to soothe their suffering as quickly as possible. Just be aware that, along with the physician and the pharmacist, there is still an important role to play for “Doctor Mom.”
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health writer and mother of four who lives near Boulder, CO. Connect at Lisa@LisaAnnMarshall.com.