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Treat Children's OTC Medicines with Care

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can help ease a child's aches and pains. But you should know a few things before you pop open a bottle.

Many of the medicines we buy don't need a prescription. We use them to prevent unnecessary healthcare provider visits and help control symptoms. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that this doesn't mean OTC medicines are harmless. They can be very dangerous to a child if not taken correctly. Parents need to read and understand all instructions before giving any medicine to a child.

Understand the label

Usually, medicines are safe when used as advised. These are serious medicines. So you must read, understand, and follow the instructions on the label. Many OTC medicines are made up of more than 1 kind of medicine. So it's important to know all the ingredients in an OTC product. You don't want to give your child too much of a certain medicine. Check with your healthcare provider when in doubt about treating your child.

Don't give any OTC medicines to children younger than 2 years. Talk with your child's healthcare provider first. The FDA and the AAP advise against giving OTC cough and cold medicines to babies and small children. There is a risk of life-threatening side effects. Studies have shown cough and cold products may not help the symptoms of children younger than 6 years. They may also cause serious problems.

Ask your healthcare provider for advice treating your child's headache or fever during routine visits. Or read information from reputable sources. Many healthcare providers can suggest or provide material.

The ABCs of OTCs

Here are tips on OTC medicines from the AAP and FDA:

  • Don't guess about your children's dose based on their size. Read the label.

  • Know the difference between TBSP (tablespoon, about 15 mL) and TSP (teaspoon, about 5 mL). They're very different. Use a measuring spoon or dosing cup. Don't use eating utensils.

  • Be careful about converting dose instructions. If the label says 2 teaspoons, use a measuring spoon or dosing cup marked in teaspoons.

  • Don't play healthcare provider. Don't double the dose just because your child seems sicker than last time.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist before you give your child 2 medicines at the same time.

  • Never give aspirin to children under 19 years old unless advised to do so by your child's healthcare provider. It can cause Reye's syndrome, a possibly fatal disease of the liver and brain.

  • Keep in mind that acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be dangerous if the wrong dosage is given. Always ask your healthcare provider what dose to give. Don't rely on the age ranges on the bottle. These are weight dependent and not every child weighs the same amount at any given age.

  • Follow any age and weight limits on the label.

  • Never let children take medicines by themselves.

  • Never describe medicine as candy so kids will take it. If they come across the medicine on their own, they might think of it as candy.

  • Always give medicine in light where you can easily read the label. Darkness increases the risk of giving the wrong medicine or dosage.

  • Read the label before opening the bottle, after removing a dose, and again before giving the dose.

  • Always use child-resistant caps. Lock medicine away from children.

  • Always check medicine packages for signs of tampering.