April 24, 2018
As pediatrician Paul Offit said, “There’s no such thing as conventional or alternative or holistic medicine. There’s only medicine that works and medicine that does not.” Most of us parents today are constantly being fed information and suggestions from our friends and family, healthcare providers, and of course, from the internet. I regularly see articles and headlines about the latest alternative medical trends and herbal remedies that are miracle cures.
Some of the herbal remedies being touted have been used for centuries, and many anecdotal stories would support their efficacy. But how does one decipher what works, what doesn’t, and most importantly, what is safe?
Walk into any grocery store or pharmacy and you will find numerous herbal, homeopathic, and non-conventional products. Some of these are even marketed specifically for children. What you may not know is many of these homeopathic and herbal medicine products are not regulated by the FDA. Sometimes, these herbs have never been tested in a pediatric population.
It can be very tempting to try something new when the usual arsenal in your medicine cabinet isn’t cutting it for your child’s painful ear infection or infected bug bite. But how do you know which alternative medicine to buy?
We are going to take a look at some of the most commonly used herbal remedies for children and really break down what works, what doesn’t, and what might be dangerous. So, the next time you are standing in the pharmacy, you can feel confident in your choice of medicine.
Echinacea is by far one of the most popular herbal remedies for boosting the immune system and combating the common cold and flu. Several active substances are found within the flowering plant that many claim will boost the production of white blood cells and help prevent or shorten the duration of viral respiratory illnesses.
While this may have some truth, the fact remains that some preparations of Echinacea available on the market today contain little to no actual Echinacea at all, and some are even tainted with arsenic and lead. More importantly, several large and credible studies have found that Echinacea does not provide benefits for treating colds in adults and children. It is also important to point out that one large study found that rashes and skin reactions, in some cases severe, occurred in children taking Echinacea.
Due to its overall lack of efficacy, and the possibility of dangerous additives, as well as the risk of side effects, Echinacea is not a worthwhile herbal remedy to reach for when treating your child’s cold or flu symptoms.
Next on the list is an herbal remedy that was a favorite of my family when I was growing up — Oil of Oregano. Oregano is a flowering plant which belongs to the mint family. Some claim that the herb helps treat sore throats, sinus and urinary tract infections, warts, parasites, and more. It’s also touted as having antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties.
When I was a child, my mother whipped out a bottle of this stuff at the first sign of illness, and we always laughed about the pizza burps that followed several hours after taking it. We swore it worked, but was it just a placebo effect? Sadly, there are no reputable published studies or evidence to suggest or prove that oil of oregano is effective for any medical condition or illness. No large scale human trials have been performed and although limited trials in mice and on petri dishes show it may be an effective antimicrobial, more research is needed to support its use, especially in children. Moreover, there are no clinical studies looking at the safety profile of oil of oregano and it is definitely not considered safe for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. There are also concerns that oregano can increase the risk of bleeding.
Oil of Oregano is definitely an herbal ingredient that should be reserved only for use on your pizza!
Almost nothing is worse than the feeling of an upset stomach, and there aren’t many good over the counter options when it comes to nausea and vomiting. That brings us to ginger, the next herbal remedy on the list. Ginger is a flowering plant and its root contains gingerols and shogoals which act on special receptors in the body to help reduce nausea and limit vomiting. It also has antispasmodic properties that help decrease muscle contractions in the stomach which contribute to an upset tummy.
Ginger is easy to find and relatively inexpensive. It can be purchased as a tea or the root can simply be peeled, grated and steeped in hot water for a few minutes, and then served warm, chilled, or even sweetened with a teaspoon of honey. Ginger chews are also a convenient option because they can be given on the go, and they taste pretty great, too!
Several studies have been performed in adults which suggest ginger is superior to a placebo at controlling nausea and vomiting. A more recent study performed in 2015 showed even better evidence that ginger provided a significant reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms.
While ginger is popularly used by pregnant women to ease morning sickness, it can also be used in children over the age of two. While it may not prevent vomiting associated with a stomach virus or food poisoning, ginger will most likely make the nausea a little more tolerable to endure. It’s important to remember that if your child is vomiting and becomes dehydrated, it’s a good idea to check in with their medical provider.
Arnica is one of the most popular homeopathic products on the market. Some of the many claimed benefits of Arnica include healing bruises, burns, muscle aches and wounds as well as reducing inflammation from insect bites and broken bones.
The principle of homeopathy is that “like cures like” and was developed by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century. The theory is that by giving a minuscule amount of something (that if given in larger amounts would cause a symptom or harm in the body) it will prompt the body to naturally heal itself. It theoretically enhances the body’s ability to identify the offending agent and promote healing.
The problem with this archaic medical practice is that, while it may seem intriguing, multiple, large scale studies have completely debunked its efficacy. Recently, an extensive analysis of 255 controlled studies confirmed that homeopathy is not an effective way to treat any health condition. Specifically, regarding Arnica, several studies have also confirmed that it did not have an advantage over a placebo in treating bruising and swelling.
For a detailed breakdown of how arnica is supposed to work, and why it falls short of its many purported benefits, take a look at this informative article.
While homeopathy and the use of arnica is probably not harmful, it is most certainly a waste of money and should never replace the treatment and advice given by a medical provider.
Chamomile is widely known as a beautiful flowering plant in the daisy family that can be brewed into a calming cup of tea. It is also praised for its many medicinal benefits that date back to ancient times. From helping aid in restful sleep to easing the discomforts associated with colic, many people swear by this herb. But what does research have to say about the benefits and safety profile of chamomile?
Unlike some of the herbs mentioned above, chamomile use in children has been studied in two reputable trials and the results support its use for colic. In one study, researchers found that 57% of babies who took chamomile over a one week period had an improvement in their colic symptoms compared with just 26% in babies receiving a placebo. Chamomile may also be useful for eczema, although further research is recommended.
If you choose to use chamomile for your baby, it’s important not to give them too much water as this can lead to something called water intoxication. Also, allergies are possible with chamomile use. In a study of nearly 4,000 patients, 3% had an allergic reaction to chamomile. It’s useful for parents to note that an infant or child with a ragweed allergy has a higher chance of being allergic to chamomile. It’s also super important to read all of the ingredients of any chamomile (or any herbal) containing baby product to make sure there aren’t any unnecessary additives, especially star anise which can cause seizures in young children.
Fun fact: ONE MILLION cups of chamomile tea are consumed every day!
Aloe Vera has long been used as a remedy to ease the pains of burns and cuts, but can it help with other ailments? This green succulent definitely boasts plenty of topical benefits and surprisingly, its use dates back 6,000 years to ancient Egypt. Research has proven that aloe lives up to its reputation when treating wounds caused by second degree burns. In fact, in this study it was found to be superior to another popular topical burn cream called silver sulfadiazine. It contains antioxidants and antimicrobial properties that make it an effective option for minor skin conditions such as cuts and scrapes, as well as a protectant from sun damage.
Although many anecdotal stories claim that aloe vera may successfully treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and constipation, this plant is not safe for oral use in children as it may partially paralyze the intestinal wall and can cause negative side effects. Its use has not been studied in children and although it is generally regarded as safe for topical use, it should not be ingested.
It’s vitally important as a parent and consumer to understand that natural does not always equate to safe. Many of the herbal remedies and alternative medicine options on the market today are not tested or regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is also true of essential oils which are often called “natural” antibiotics.
It is essential to speak with your pediatric healthcare provider before giving your child any medication or supplement, and always report any unusual side effects or concerns immediately. Keeping our children safe and healthy is always the priority, and some herbal remedies might be helpful in relieving symptoms of illness, but they should never replace the recommended treatment of your medical care provider.
I hope you feel more informed after reading about these commonly used herbal remedies, and next time you’re in the trenches with a sick child, you’ll know which products are worthwhile and which ones are definitely worth skipping!
Author: Brenna Allsuch, Pediatric RN