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Cold Medicines Sending Kids to the ER

Jan 29, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Cough and cold medicines can be dangerous—even deadly—to children, especially when taken unsupervised.  According to the U.S. government’s first national estimate of the problem—released yesterday—about 7,000 children are sent to hospital emergency rooms every year. About two-thirds of the children took medicines without supervision and one-quarter fell ill when their parents dosed them properly.  In those cases, children developed an allergic reaction or some other problem according to a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC studied both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications.

CDC researchers gathered case reports from 2004 and 2005 of children aged 11 and younger who had taken cough and cold medications and required treatment in 63 hospitals.  The CDC based the national estimate from these figures. The study found that of the children reported to have received the correct medicine doses, about one-third were under two years of age and more than half were ages six to 11.

The CDC study was released less than two weeks after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning for parents that OTC cough and cold medicines are dangerous for children under two.  The CDC’s study's findings on properly dosed kids who end up in the ER is expected to contribute to FDA discussions about cough and cold drug recommendations in the two-to-six age group, CDC officials said.  Approximately 1,600 of the estimated 7,100 children are under two years of age; therefore, if FDA recommendations are followed, ER cases should fall 23 percent.

The CDC found that the majority—nearly two-thirds—of the cases involved children in the range of two-to-five years of age.  "The main message is, no medication left in the hands of a 3-year-old is safe," said the CDC's Dr. Melissa Schaefer an epidemiologist and the study's lead author.  Because many of the ER case reports were not symptom specific and researchers did not follow the cases through to conclusion, they could not confirm if—or how many—cases resulted in death, said Schaefer.  For children whose symptoms were reported, allergic reactions such as hives and itching were most common; neurological symptoms such as drowsiness and unsteady walking were reported as the second most common.  The medicines involved were generally liquid combinations of cough and cold treatments.

Some children suffer side effects from medications, so those results aren't necessarily unexpected, Schaefer said.  The FDA will have to balance data against the medicines' benefits and other factors, she added.  "What we gave them was a piece of the puzzle."

The study tells a story of the misuse of medications, said Linda Suydam, president of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group representing manufacturers and distributors of OTC medicines. "These medicines are safe when used as directed, and this government review underscores the importance of educating consumers—especially those with small children—on the safe use and safekeeping of medicine," Suydam said.

The CDC urges parents to avoid taking adult medications in front of children and to avoid encouraging children to take medicine by telling them it's candy.

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