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Doctors advise parents to use antihistamines instead of cold or cough medicine for children with respiratory infections

Researchers say using one over the other can come with fewer side effects

Photo (c) Artfoliophoto - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Rutgers University found that when young children have respiratory infections, doctors more commonly choose allergy medications over cold or cough medicines. 

“Families often treat their children’s respiratory infections with cough and cold medicines, some of which include opioid ingredients, such as codeine or hydrocodone,” said researcher Daniel Horton. 

“However, there is little proof that these medications effectively ease the symptoms in young children. Also, many cough and cold medicines have multiple ingredients, which increases the chance of serious accidental overdose when combined with another product.” 

Making the safest choices

The researchers utilized responses to national surveys to get a better understanding of doctors’ trends in treating respiratory infections in children under the age of 12. Starting from 2002 and ending in 2015, the researchers were able to evaluate data from over three billion respiratory incidents that occurred via emergency room trips or ambulatory clinics. 

Though the results revealed that doctors prescribed nearly 96 million cough or cold medications over the course of the 13-year period, prescriptions for these drugs were on the decline starting in 2008 due to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning. 

The agency advised parents that cough and cold medications could come with serious side effects, as Horton explained. Regulators said the drugs should be used sparingly or not at all for children under the age of six.

After the FDA made the warning public, doctors started prescribing cough and cold medications less, and they started prescribing antihistamines more. Prescriptions for cough and cold medications containing opioids went down nearly 70 percent after 2008, while prescriptions for the drugs without opioids went down nearly 60 percent. 

Though antihistamine prescriptions have increased in the last decade, the researchers remain unsure about whether they are a better alternative when young children are suffering with a cold or the flu. The team recommends that parents look for natural remedies when possible. 

“Sedating antihistamines such as diphenhydramine [Benadryl] may have a small effect on some cold symptoms in adults,” said Horton. “However, there is little evidence that antihistamines actually help children with colds feel better or recover faster. We do know that these medicines can make some kids sleepy and some kids quite hyper.” 

Natural remedies

One recent study also warned parents against giving their kids, especially those under six, decongestants when they suffer from a cold or the flu. 

The researchers explained that there are several potential side effects, including upset stomach, drowsiness, or headaches. The team said that parents should instead rely on more natural remedies, like eucalyptus oil, humified steam, or probiotics. 

Similarly, experts have emphasized how effective vitamin C can be in shortening the duration of colds, especially when taken in higher doses. 

"Given the consistent effect of Vitamin C on the duration of colds, and its safety and low cost, it would be worthwhile for individual common cold patients to test whether therapeutic 8 g/day vitamin C is beneficial for them,” said researcher Dr. Harri Hemilä. “Self-dosing of vitamin C must be started as soon as possible after the onset of common cold symptoms to be most effective.”

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