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Though emergency-room trips for OTC cold medicines in children have dropped, too many still take these drugs

As we head into this winter’s cold and flu season, it’s important that parents remember not to give over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines to their young children.

Three years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised parents to stop using these medications in children under the age of 4. (Other experts believe the prohibition should extend to all young people under the age of 16.) Although the dangers to young children from these products are rare, they are very real, and include respiratory failure and death.

Unfortunately, not all parents have gotten the message. A study published today in the journal Pediatrics found that a significant number of infants and toddlers are still showing up in hospital emergency rooms with serious side effects from OTC cough and cold medications.

Still, that number is much, much lower than what it was before cough and cold preparations aimed at infants and toddlers were pulled from the market in 2007.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used a sampling of data from 60 U.S. hospitals with 24-hour emergency room departments. It found that OTC cough and cold medicine-related problems in children aged 2 and under dropped by more than half — from 2,790 in the 14 months before the withdrawal of the drugs to 1,248 visits in the 14 months afterward.

This drop was seen only in the under-2 age set, however. For all kids under the age of 12, the number of emergency room visits for problems related to OTC cough and cold medications remained essentially unchanged (9,408 versus 9,727).

The study also found that two-thirds of these emergency room visits are due to kids taking the OTC medications without their parents knowing it.

Parents: Make doubly sure that all your medicines, including OTC ones, are out of your children’s reach. And never give your children any medicines, even in small doses, meant for adults.

Not just unsafe — also unnecessary
As I’ve reported here before, there’s no good evidence that OTC cough and cold medications work for adults, much less for children. Research suggests that much of the symptom relief offered by these products can be traced back to our old friend, the placebo effect (and to the fact that cold symptoms ease on their own).

You may even worsen your symptoms by taking these products. Decongestants, for example, can cause “rebound congestion” — a non-cold-related stuffy and runny nose that may linger long after your cold is gone (although you’ll unfairly blame it on your cold).

Be aware also that OTC cough and cold products pose potential hazardous consequences for adults as well as for children. Decongestants, for example, can raise blood pressure.

What can you do for your coughs and colds this winter? Experts recommend noncaffeinated fluids, a humidifier, saltwater gargles, saline nasal drops/sprays and plenty of rest.

Oh, yes, and chicken soup.

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