Herbs for Kids: What's Safe, What's Not

3 min read

June 26, 2000 -- Take a walk through a health food store and you'll probably see a mind-boggling array of herbal products aimed at children. The remedies come in many different packages with many different claims, but the same ingredients often show up again and again on the labels.

What does science have to say? Kathi Kemper, MD, director of the Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research at Children's Hospital in Boston, has weighed the evidence behind each of the herbs most commonly given to children. And as she reported in the February 2000 issue of the journal Pediatrics in Review, in most cases the jury is still out.

Here's the latest scoop on the herbs that most often show up in child remedies, based on Kemper's review and the opinions of other leading herbal experts:

  • Catnip. While its power over cats is unquestionable, catnip has never been scientifically tested on humans. Still, it is often used to treat children's low-grade fevers, upper respiratory tract infections, colic, headache, nervousness, sleep disorders, and indigestion. It also has a reputation for easing menstrual cramps. Serious side effects seem to be rare, but Kemper reports that at least one toddler became excessively drowsy after taking it.

    Bottom line: Probably safe, but no proven reason to try it.

  • Chamomile. A hot cup of chamomile tea helped calm Peter Rabbit's nerves, and it might do the same for your child. Studies have found that chamomile is a mild sedative that seems to be safe for children of all ages. (It may trigger an allergic reaction, however, especially if a child is sensitive to ragweed.)

    Bottom line: If not allergic to ragweed or other similar plants, drink up.

  • Echinacea. This herb flies off the shelves on the premise that it boosts the immune system and helps fend off colds. Scientific studies, however, have found conflicting results. Kemper reports that taking echinacea can cause dermatitis, but, like chamomile, it seems to be generally safe for children who aren't allergic to it.

    Bottom line: May be worth a try, but don't expect miracles.

  • Licorice root. Real licorice, as opposed to those red and black impostors in the candy aisle, is serious medicine. According to the Complete German Commission E Monographs, an authoritative reference on herbal remedies, licorice root can help loosen congestion in the lungs and can even speed the healing of stomach ulcers. The monographs also say licorice is completely safe in the small amounts used to flavor teas and other products.

    But you don't want to overdo it: As Varro Tyler reports in his book, The Honest Herbal, large doses of the root can cause headaches, fatigue, salt and water retention, potassium loss, high blood pressure, and even cardiac arrest. The Commission E Monographs suggest that adults take no more than 15 grams of licorice root per day for no more than six weeks. Using the Herb Research Foundation's rule of thumb that a child's dose ought to be one-fourth to one-third of an adult's, a child should take no more than 4 or 5 grams of licorice a day.

    Bottom line: OK in small amounts, but be extremely careful -- and be sure to tell your child's doctor about it.

  • St. John's wort. This popular herb seems to help ease mild to moderate depression in adults, according to Kemper's review, although it has scarcely been tested on children. Kemper reports that children who take St. John's wort may feel dizzy, nauseous, sleepy, or confused. The Food and Drug Administration recently warned the herb can interfere with many prescription drugs.

Bottom line: For now, real risks outweigh possible benefits.

Chris Woolston is a freelance health and medical writer living in Billings, Mont. He writes for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, and Time Inc. Health.