What’s in Children’s Cough Syrup?

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Examine product labels and analyze all ingredients.

Just because medicines are sold without a prescription doesn’t mean they’re harmless—especially for kids.

Consider over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. Some contain codeine, a drug used to relieve coughing and pain. Just this month, the FDA released strong new warnings against giving codeine to children under age 12, because the drug can cause serious—even life-threatening—breathing problems.  

Some children and adults process codeine more quickly than other people, the FDA explains. The level of codeine in their bloodstream can rise too high, too fast. Because of their small size, children are at particular risk of overdose.

Some older kids are at risk, too. The FDA warns that children between 12 and 18 should avoid codeine if they are obese, suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, or have a weakened respiratory system. And the agency cautions breastfeeding moms to avoid codeine, to prevent harming their infants.

Examine product labels

The next time you pick up an over-the-counter medicine for your child, take time to read the label thoroughly (and if you find codeine listed in the ingredients, put it back on the shelf.) Here are some other precautions, provided by Lara Darling, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

  • Make sure any medicine you choose is clearly labeled as appropriate for your child's age.
  • Follow dosing directions carefully. Never give too much, or dose too often.
  • If you’re buying multiple medicines—say a cold medicine and a pain reliever—read both sets of ingredients to make sure they don’t overlap. Otherwise, you might accidentally "double dose."

Analyze all ingredients

  • Here’s something you may not know: Children under a year old should never have honey—and honey is sometimes found in cough medicines. Even a tiny taste of honey can expose babies to toxins that grow and multiply in their intestines. Potentially, this could lead to infant botulism, a serious stomach condition.
  • No infant under 6 months should ever have ibuprofen.

When in doubt, consult an expert. “If you have any questions about purchasing a medication, don’t hesitate to ask the pharmacist for guidance.” Dr. Darling says. “And if your child has an ongoing medical condition of any kind, always check with your doctor before giving an over-the-counter medicine.”

-- By Amy Sunshine

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