When children suddenly spike a fever in the middle of the night, many parents automatically reach for an over-the-counter medication to help their child. But sometimes even the most cautious parents may inadvertently give the wrong dose, which can have serious, even fatal, results.
And medications most parents think of as safe, such as Motrin and Tylenol products, can cause lifelong damage if a baby is given too much at one time or over a period of time.
In Kane County, the deaths of two infants last December led health department officials to caution parents to be careful when giving prescription and over-the-counter medication to babies and young children.
"We had a committee meeting ... with the coroner and he felt strongly that overmedication was a factor in two [of the six December infant deaths in Kane County]," says Michael Isaacson, public information officer for the Kane County Health Department. "We want to reinforce how important it is for parents who are dealing with different medications and different measuring devices [to get the dosage correct]."
No matter what medication is involved, parents need to be aware that giving too much of almost any medication to babies can have serious, even fatal, results, Isaacson says.
The Illinois Department of Public Health says no other fatal cases of overmedication were reported in the state last year, but nationally giving infants the wrong dose of medications occurs more frequently than most people realize.
"We see this with lots of liquid medications for infants, from plain old Tylenol to Zyrtec or Zantac," says Nancy Tuohy, spokesperson for the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices. "We had one mom where a prescription dose for her baby was 0.7 and she went to the pharmacy and [told the pharmacist] the dose was 7. She asked them to show her where to fill the syringe to and she gave her baby seven times the dose, because she didn’t show them the prescription."
Medication errors are not usually fatal, making the Kane County cases an anomaly, but overmedicating infants can cause lifelong damage. "Especially for children under 2, they can’t handle this because their liver is undeveloped and they can’t metabolize the drugs," says Martin Weekley, president of the Illinois Pharmacists Association. And the damage may not always be immediately noticed.
"With acetaminophen products [such as Tylenol], overmedicating has a cumulative effect and it can cause severe liver damage," Tuohy says. "There are usually antidotes if you overdose on other drugs, but this one builds up in the liver and the body can’t get rid of it."
Most medication errors occur when parents or caregivers use the wrong dosing device, Tuohy says. "The safest way to measure [medication for infants] is to use an oral syringe," she says. "Ask the pharmacist to give you a syringe to dose any medication you pick up. Don’t use medicine spoons, those aren’t good for infants."
Parents also need to discuss any medications they may be giving their baby with their physician and communicate it to their pharmacist, says Mike Patton, spokesperson for the Illinois Pharmaceutical Association.
Isaacson recommends parents ask pharmacists to show them exactly how to dose both prescription and over-the-counter medication to their child. "Many times people pick up their medications and walk away," he says. "But the pharmacists are there on the frontlines."
Liz DeCarlo is a mom and associate editor at Chicago Parent.