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Making Sense of OTC Drug Use in Kids

Get answers to questions about OTC drug safety for children.

How should a cough be treated, given all these rules and restrictions on OTC drug use?

“Cough suppressants may be appropriate in older children when the coughing gets miserable,” says Tomaka. ”But too often parents used these medications for mild, productive coughs.” A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus. Inappropriate use of cough suppressants can suppress the mucus, preventing it from being cleared from the lungs. If it remains in the lungs, the mucus can become infected.

“Overuse of cough suppressants for productive coughs can cause an increase in pneumonia and bronchial infections,” Tomaka says. The best rule of thumb? “If a cough is especially loud, productive or non-productive, and bothersome enough that it interferes with sleep, crying, or talking, call your pediatrician.”

Is baby aspirin ever OK to use in kids?

No way, no how, says Tomaka. Despite its name, “Baby aspirin is never to be used by babies,” he says. In general, baby aspirin should not be used for kids or teenagers except for certain conditions when prescribed by a doctor. Aspirin use in kids during a viral illness is linked to the development of Reye’s syndrome. This is a rare but potentially fatal illness that can affect the brain and liver.

So how should fever or inflammation be treated in kids?

Acetaminophen is OK in children under 6 months of age. For older children, ibuprofen may also be used. “If there is severe inflammation, stiffness, and pain, such as after your child hurts her knee, ibuprofen may be the better choice,” Tomaka says.

Protect yourself and your family by reading the package labeling very carefully. Shepard says, “Taking too much is the biggest problem. That is why the FDA imposed its new rules.” She also advises steering clear of combination products.”

Shepard also points to the fact that some parents tend to switch off between acetaminophen and ibuprofen when treating a fever. Her advice is to talk with your pediatrician about this to see what he or she thinks.

If you can’t use cold or cough products in young kids, what can you do?

“Children should drink plenty of fluids to clear out their airways,” says Shepard. “Slightly warm liquids are helpful,” she says. “For young babies, put salt water drops in a dropper and squirt them in the nose and suck them out with a bulb to reduce congestion.” Saline nose drops are also available over the counter.

For children older than 1, honey can help soothe a cough. “A small amount of honey such as 1/2 teaspoon to a teaspoon mixed with warm water can soothe a cough before bed,” Shepard says. Honey is not recommended in children younger than one because it can increase the risk of botulism poisoning.

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