WASHINGTON - With a new cold season coming, the government is trying once more to decide what to do about over-the-counter medicines for kids' coughs and sniffles. Doctors question the drugs' benefits and worry about their risks.
Pediatricians are urging the Food and Drug Administration, which scheduled a public hearing Thursday on the issue, to demand a recall of the medicines for children younger than 6.
"Parents should know that there is less evidence than ever to support the use of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for young children," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner. "There is nothing that is holding the FDA back from asking for a voluntary recall now of products marketed to kids under 6."
U.S. families spend at least $286 million a year on such cough and cold remedies for children, according to the Nielsen Co. market research firm. In any given week the medicines are used by an estimated 10 percent of all children, with the biggest exposure among 2- to 5-year-olds, a recent Boston University report found.
But colds usually clear up on their own after a few days. Many doctors say rest and plenty of fluids are what it takes to get over a cold.
The FDA this year warned against giving OTC cold medicines to children younger than 2. At that time, officials said they expected to decide by spring on recommendations for youngsters up to 11. Now the agency is seeking more advice from doctors, industry and consumers.
The industry says OTC medicines have been used for decades in treating kids' colds and are safe for those older than 2. Nonetheless, manufacturers are carrying out new studies involving the most common ingredients in the medications. The companies voluntarily stopped selling cough and cold medicines for babies and toddlers last fall.
FDA advisers said that was not enough and recommended that the drugs not be used for children younger than 6. An expert panel said older children could keep taking the medications while studies are undertaken to settle scientific questions about safety and effectiveness.
It turns out that when the FDA set standards for cough and cold medicines some 30 years ago, no separate studies were done for kids.
Cough and cold medicines send about 7,000 children to hospital emergency rooms each year with symptoms ranging from hives and drowsiness to unsteady walking. Low doses of a medicine are not likely to cause a problem; the main risk comes from unintentional overdoses.
The same ingredients usually are found in different products. For example, giving a child a cough syrup and a decongestant could inadvertently lead to an overdose.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the manufacturers, says preventable errors are the problem, not the safety of the ingredients in the medicines. The industry is starting an educational campaign aimed at parents, doctors and day care providers on the importance of following directions and storing medicines in places where kids cannot get at them.
But Sharfstein said Maryland saw an immediate benefit after OTC cough and cold remedies for tots were removed from store shelves last fall. Calls to poison control about problems with the medicines involving children younger than 2 dropped by 40 percent, from 99 to 60, in the first six months of this year when compared with 2007. Calls involving children 2 to 6 also dropped, but by much less.