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Giving Medication to Children: A Q & A with Dianne Murphy, M.D.

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Children are more sensitive than adults to many drugs. For example, antihistamines and alcohol—common ingredients in cold medications—can have adverse effects at lower doses on young patients, causing excitability or excessive drowsiness. Some drugs, like aspirin, can cause serious illness or even death in children with chickenpox or flu symptoms.

Also, realize that some diseases may be expressed differently in children than in adults, and some drugs don’t work for kids even though they have been proven to work in adults.

All of these factors underscore the importance of speaking to your health care professionals, and asking questions about the medicines that you are buying OTC or that are being prescribed for your child.

Q: What are active ingredients, and why should parents be familiar with them?

A: A product is made up of many components. Some of these are “inactive” and just help make it taste better or dissolve better. Unless it is a combination product, usually there is only one “active” ingredient in a medication that makes it pharmaceutically active—that is, it is what causes the medicine to be effective against the disease or condition.

Many products, including products that treat different conditions, use the same active ingredients or the same class of active ingredients. For example, products to treat allergies may have the same active ingredient as some cough and cold products. So it is possible to overdose with a certain active ingredient if you are not careful.

You should not decide what OTC medications to take or to give a child based merely on what the large print on a product’s box says. You must look for the active ingredient.

If parents or caretakers really want to know if a product has been studied in the age population that their child belongs to, they really should become familiar with the pediatric section of the label for that product, and learn to compare active ingredients for OTC products.

Also, don’t rely just on advertisements for information when it comes to giving medication to children. Remember, many products have not been studied in children or not in all pediatric populations. Don’t hesitate to ask questions of health care professionals, including the pharmacist.