Dangers of OTC Cold Medicines

by Susan Willets on July 7, 2008

Over the counter cold medicines offer relief to some children, but many times the dangers outweigh the benefits. There are several conditions that must be carefully monitored to avoid dangerous outcomes when using these medicines.

Accidental Overdosing/Double-Dosing

One of the most common mistakes parents make when administering medicine to their children is giving them more than the required amount. Sometimes parents give a “little extra” in an attempt to make the medicine more effective. Where in fact, if the required dosage is not effective, chances are the medicine is not effective for your child’s symptoms and other means of finding relief will be necessary. There are several other precautions you can take to ensure your child does not become a victim of overdosing:

  • Follow your doctor’s guidance to make sure that your child does not receive too much of an active ingredient; a serious and sometimes fatal mistake.
  • Use the provided cups/droppers to measure all medicines. Do not use regular tableware, or estimate in a regular cup as it is not accurate and can lead to accidental overdose.
  • Check the age/weight recommendations on the label and follow them carefully. The dosage for many medicine are based on weight and not just age alone.
  • Avoid multi-symptom medicines as they contain several active ingredients. If any additional medicine is given, the child is at risk for the active ingredients to be present in both and being offered a double dose. If you must use OTC medicines, try using ones that only treat one symptom and have only one active ingredient. Generic versions of the medicines are sometimes better for this as they often contain only the main active ingredient, which is what the child needs.
  • Keep a log to record the date/time, name of the medicine and the amount given for each dose of medicine that is administered. Share the log with anyone else who is caring for your child and require that they update it as well.
  • Monitor the number of doses given to your child each day. Offering an extra dose, even though a certain number of hours has passed can be dangerous when they have already reached the limit for the number of doses that day.

Ignoring Age Requirements

Read all medicine packaging carefully as sometimes medicines are marketed to look as though they are safe for small children, when in fact they are intended for much older children. According to the FDA, NO CHILD UNDER THE AGE OF 2 should receive cold medicines without the specific instructions of a pediatrician. These medicines are not deemed safe for small children and should be avoided.

Many children’s medicines are labeled safe for children ages 6-12. If your child is between the ages of 2-6, you will need to find a medicine appropriate for their age. It is not safe to give a smaller dose of a medicine intended for older children. If you cannot find any medicine to match your child’s age/weight/symptoms, refer to our natural remedies for other options, or contact your pediatrician.

Treating More Than Necessary

If your child has a runny nose, then all they need in their cold medicine is an active ingredient for congestion. Avoid medicines that treat runny nose along with coughs, fevers, sore throat, etc. as they will give your child more active ingredients than what they need. When it comes to medicine, less is more. Target the main symptoms you wish to treat and find a medicine that treats only those symptoms.

Dangerous Active Ingredients

Active ingredients are the component of cold medicines that make them effective; however, there are often side effects that can be dangerous to young children. For more information on this, see our information on active ingredients.

Extended Use

All over the counter medicines offer guidelines about the length of time it is safe to use the medicine. If this time has passed and your child is still feeling ill, then it is time to make an appointment to see the doctor. The cold may have evolved into something more serious that needs a prescription and further care.

Using OTC Cold Medicines to Get High

There has been an increasing number of instances in which teenagers are using medicines for other purposes than to treat cold symptoms. This is a growing concern and one that all parents should be aware of. We offer more information about the misuse of OTC drugs and signs of misuse to help make parents aware of this growing problem.

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