A visit to the children's section of the local drugstore offers a mind-boggling array of choices-and not just the traditional variety of over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol and Motrin.
Now there are homeopathic tablets containing diluted amounts of chamomile and belladonna that promise to curb teething pain. Lavender and chamomile baby wipes and lotions offer the hope of "soothing a fussy baby."
Homeopathic remedies have long been with us. Some are based on the remedies our grandmothers suggested. They include adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil in a humidifier to help a child breathe easier during a cold, offering a cup of chamomile tea to relax an anxious child, using the ginger in ginger ale to soothe nausea or an olive oil rub to combat cradle cap in babies.
Evolving from some of grandma's remedies, an industry is now booming with slickly marketed alternative medicines filling drugstore shelves. They are selling and we are buying.
More than one-third of American adults used alternative medicine in 2002, according to a survey of more than 31,000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alternative remedies are also being used for kids. According to a 2001 American Academy of Pediatrics survey of about 1,600 pediatricians, 87 percent said in three months they had parents or patients who asked about alternative therapy,
But are these alternatives safe for our children? What so-called "all natural" remedies can be ineffective for kids? Or worse, which ones are dangerous?
The questions are easy, but finding the answers is not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not oversee this burgeoning market, and much of the evidence on the effectiveness and safety of these remedies is anecdotal, not scientific.
"With the amount of remedies out there that aren't regulated by the FDA, it's like the Wild West," says Dr. Charles Dumont, director of Loyola's Pediatric Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Loyola's Ronald McDonald Children's Hospital.
Here is what we know: • Alternative medicine includes any healing practice that is not part of mainstream medicine, with everything from acupuncture to herbs, dietary supplements to homeopathic remedies, and highly diluted substances.
• Complementary medicine uses alternative treatments along with conventional procedures. For example, some doctors recommend acupuncture and guided imagery to help kids cope with asthma, stress and eating disorders. Dumont, who is trained in mind/body medicine, says relaxation techniques can help reverse the effects of stress on the body and treat chronic illnesses. Doctors at Loyola's children's hospital have used Korean hand acupuncture-where small metal pellets are placed on acupuncture points on the hand-to help treat chronic ear infections.
• Herbs are plants or plant parts valued for medicinal qualities. These are not regulated by the FDA and can contain pesticides and heavy metals depending on how they are processed. Most herbs are not tested on children, and when they are, the results can be different. Echinacea, popular among adults for fighting colds, is ineffective for fighting colds in kids, according to a University of Washington study of children aged 2 to 11.
• Vitamin and mineral supplements are used to help ensure children and adults are getting what they need to stay healthy. Most children eating a variety of nutritious foods should not need anything beyond a multivitamin. The FDA, which does not regulate supplements, has listed the following as potentially dangerous: chaparral, comfrey, lobelia, germander, willow bark, ephedra (ma huang), L-tryptophan, germanium, magnolia-stephania preparations, dieter's teas and excess amounts of some vitamins and minerals.
Here are some suggestions to help you sort through the shelves: • Shop smart. Just because an alternative medicine is touted as "all natural" does not mean it is safe. Always check with your child's pediatrician before starting an alternative remedy for your kids.
• Do some homework. Look at the reputation of the company manufacturing the alternative medicine, the historical record on the use of the product over time and its cost. Bring your research on the remedy to your pediatrician to discuss it.
• Ask and tell. This is crucial. Pediatricians should always ask parents whether they are using alternative remedies and talk to patients about the remedies in a nonjudgmental way, according the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy.
For more information on alternative medicine, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at www.nccam.nih.gov, American Academy of Medical Acupuncture at www.medicalacupuncture.org, National Center for Homeopathy at www.homeopathic.org and the American Association of Oriental Medicine at www.aaom.org. For information on the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program at Loyola, call (708) 327-9073.