Video: FDA: Cold meds don't help kids under six

updated 10/19/2007 7:28:28 PM ET 2007-10-19T23:28:28

Julie Eshelman always believed that the decongestant liquid she gave her young daughter for a cold was helpful.

The girl, now 7, used to come home from day care with the sniffles. “She'd wake up in the middle of the night and we’d mix the medicine with some juice,” says Eshelman, 41, of Bloomfield, N.J. “She would then go back to sleep. We thought it worked, but now I’m not so sure.”

Federal health advisors Friday said over-the-counter cold and cough medicines don't work in children and shouldn't be used for those under 6 . Although parents have doled out the liquids and pills for decades, the drugs have never been tested in children. The Food and Drug Administration's panel of experts concluded more studies needed to be done.

The advice has left many parents wondering what to do when their kids are suffering from stuffy noses, sniffles or hacking coughs.

“You’ve got to take it seriously. I want to be cautious,” says Alison Schwartz, a 36-year-old mom who lives in Sacramento, Calif. “But on the other hand, it’s really hard with a child — especially a kid under 6 — to watch him up all night coughing, with a cold or the flu, and not be able to give him something to give him a little relief, just so he can get some sleep.”

Like many parents, Schwartz argues that the over-the-counter cold medicines have always seemed to work for her son, 3-year-old Owen.

The FDA meeting came just a week after several manufacturers pulled sales of nonprescription cold drugs targeted at children under 2. The move followed questions by the FDA and other health groups over a number of reported deaths linked to the remedies in recent years. The deaths occurred when parents gave their children accidental overdoses.

It’s troubling news for many parents who now aren’t sure how to best care for a child with a cold.

“It definitely makes me nervous,” says Pat Cockburn, a Seattle father whose son, Charlie, turns 3 this month. “It’s very scary to me that you would be potentially putting your child in danger by using something that seems innocuous.”

The FDA isn’t required to follow the advice of its panels of experts, but the recommendation is expected to shake up how these popular medicines are used, labeled and marketed. For now, the kids' cold remedies will still be sold in drug stores, despite panelists agreeing there’s no evidence they work in kids up to 12.

The observation is shared by many pediatricians on the frontline.

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"We always knew these medicines didn’t do much," says Dr. Edward Pont, a pediatrician in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Ill. "It’s nice to have the government backing us up now. I think most pediatricians are pretty happy with the decision."

Dr. Benjamin Danielson, a pediatrician and clinic chief of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle, agrees.

“I spend a lot of time trying to talk a lot of parents out of getting too excited about the prospect of using cold medicines in their kids,” says Danielson. “These things really don’t work very well. They’re very good at making your wallet a little lighter, but their effectiveness is not established.”

An extra dose of TLC
Although many parents believe that these cold and cough medicines have always worked for their children, Danielson points out that it may be the additional care parents are giving that’s really solving the problem.

“Sometimes things can really feel like they’re effective, and there may be instances where it is helpful,” Danielson says. In other words, it’s likely the extra TLC, hydration and sleep that’s helping the child recover.

“If you’d done those and not given the cold medicine, they may have gotten better anyway,” Danielson says.

For Nikki Valente, a mother of three in Manasquan, N.J., the news isn't a surprise. Valente has stocked her medicine shelf with  bottles of expectorants, decongestants and  other cold medicines over the years, but was never convinced they made much of a difference for her children, now ages 20, 17 and 7.

"They never really seemed to get better and when my kids got older they said, 'Mom, it doesn't help,'" she says. Valente prefers to let nature take its course. "Sometimes it gets so bad you have to go to the doctor, but I think it’s better to let the body kick the sickness out on its own."

Still, these cold medicines have been given to children for years and plenty of parents will  continue to be convinced that the drugs do help, especially at 3 a.m.

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Dr. Catherine Tom-Revzon, clinical pharmacy manager at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York, says that even though there's no proof that the drugs work, some children may see a benefit.

"Symptoms are very subjective," she says. "For some children they can seem to help, but you can't say with a blanket statement that it works for all children."

Colds now, fewer illnesses later?
Many pediatricians hope that the FDA’s recommendation will allow parents to change their thinking about kids and the common cold. Fighting a cold helps a young child develop his own immune system, and suppressing symptoms such as a cough or congestion may be working against that, and could even lead to the child developing a secondary infection.

“Some of the kids who have those many colds in the first few years end up having fewer illnesses when they reach school age,” Danielson says.

Instead of using cold medicines, pediatricians say that keeping the child well-hydrated and well-rested is the best thing a parent can do. A cold mist humidifier can reduce the amount of mucous in the child's nose.

On rare occasions, such as a serious fever that reaches 103 and leaves the child feeling achy and miserable, Danielson recommends giving the child acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

And if a fever persists, it’s worth a call to the pediatrician.

For Cockburn, the Seattle father, the cold medicines aren’t worth the risk.

“I’m just going to keep letting him cough; I’m not going to use anything, for sure not,” Cockburn says. “If there’s any risk whatsoever, bottom line is: I’m not using any over-the-counter medicines for Charlie.”

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