Over-the-counter cough and cold drugs send an estimated 7,000 U.S. children under the age of 12 to emergency rooms every year, most for overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday.
Because parents will continue to buy such drugs, better packaging might help protect young children, the researchers reported in the journal Pediatrics.
Two-thirds of the cases were children who took the drugs without supervision, but a quarter were children who acted unusually sleepy, had an allergic reaction or other ill effect after a parent gave them the recommended dose, the CDC team found.
Evidence suggests parents want to give these drugs, including cough suppressants, antihistamines and decongestants, to their children, even though they have never been shown to benefit young children.
They cited a national survey that showed 64 percent of parents consider cough and cold medications to be safe and 20 percent plan to continue to give them to their children under 2 years, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month "strongly recommended" against it.
"However, if these medications are removed from the market, caregivers may be tempted to substitute products that are labeled for use by older children and adults," the CDC team wrote.
Dr. Melissa Schaefer and colleagues looked at a nationally representative sample of 63 U.S. emergency departments in 2004 and 2005.
"Annually, an estimated 7,091 patients aged under 12 years were treated in emergency departments for adverse drug events from cough and cold medications, accounting for 5.7 percent of emergency department visits for all medications in this age group," they wrote.
More than 90 percent of the children were sent home quickly. The researchers did not look in-depth at the specific symptoms the children had.
Companies that make the drugs might consider changes to packaging to keep small children from getting into the medications, which are often flavored and colored to make them more appealing, Schaefer's team said.
"One packaging innovation is incorporating adaptors onto bottles of liquid medication such that medication can only be accessed with a needle-less syringe, which prevents unsupervised preschool-aged children from drinking directly from the bottle," they suggested.
"We had also considered the idea of taking coloring out of these medications," Schaefer said in a telephone interview.
"Parents need to be vigilant about keeping these medicines out of their children's reach," said Dr. Denise Cardo, director of CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.
"They should refrain from encouraging children to take medicine by telling the children that medication is candy." Also, adults should avoid taking adult medications in front of young children, she said.