Q: Winter is right around the corner, and it’s got me thinking about over-the-counter medications — cold medications, specifically — and the fact that I’ve been hearing a lot about the risks associated with them. What are some common medications and concerns I need to know about before deciding to give these to my kids?
A: You’re right to be thinking about the risks of over-the-counter (OTC) medications. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against giving cough or cold medications to children younger than 2 years old. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics says they are dangerous to kids in this age range.
Many people mistakenly believe that OTC medications are safer because they don’t require a prescription. But just like prescription medications, harm can result if children are given incorrect dosages or given the wrong kind of medication.
Over-dosage is the most common problem we see with OTC medications. Follow the label instructions exactly. This ensures proper dosage, which depends on your child’s age and weight. Never give your child more than the recommended dose.
Be careful when combining medications. Often times, medications contain many of the same active ingredients. Taking more than one can inadvertently lead to an overdose.
Choose the right medicine for your child’s symptoms. Common OTC medications include acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) and decongestants or cough medicines.
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can treat pain or fever; ibuprofen can also relieve inflammation. Decongestants shrink blood vessels in the nose and make it easier to breathe. Pay attention to your child’s symptoms and be sure to pick the most appropriate medication.
As always, consult with your child’s primary care physician before giving medications to your children. It is also a good idea to talk with a pharmacist when you purchase OTC medications. He or she will be able to answer general questions.
If your child has a negative reaction to any medication, or if you are unsure of using certain medications, you can call your Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
—Marcel J. Casavant, MD, is Division Chief of Pharmacology/Toxicology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.