Are Cough Medications With Codeine Safe for Kids?

Are prescription cough suppressants safe for kids?. Mehmet Hilmi Barcin/E+/Getty Images

In April 2015, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended that cough medications containing codeine not be given to children under 12 years old. They also recommended caution in prescribing these medications for children between 12 and 18 years old who have a history of breathing problems. 

Codeine is a narcotic and is most often used for pain relief. However, it may also be combined with cough and cold products (available by prescription only in the United States) to relieve coughing.

Codeine converts to morphine in the body which sends signals to the brain to change the way the your body reacts to pain and decrease activity in the part of the brain that causing coughing. However, when codeine converts to morphine too quickly (which is does in some people) it can also slow breathing which can lead to death, especially in children. 

The EMA looked at the risks versus benefits of these codeine-containing cough suppressants and determined that in children they are not worth the risk. There is little evidence that they are effective at all and because coughs and colds are self-limiting (meaning they go away on their own), the risk of giving children medications that could cause greater harm outweighed the potential benefit for some. 

What About the United States?

Since the EMA recommendations were released, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to convene a public advisory committee meeting and consider the EMA's recommendations.

As of the summer of 2015, these products are still available in the United States but health care providers are urged to use caution when prescribing them. 

If your child is taking a cough suppressant that contains codeine, pay attention and know the signs to watch for so you will know if she is having difficulty breathing.

If you notice slow, difficult or noisy breathing, confusion or extreme drowsiness, seek medical attention right away. 

The safety of these medications for children is very much under debate. Unless your child's health care provider has recommended them strongly for your child, you should use caution before giving them. If your child has any history of breathing problems such as asthma or wheezing, talk to his Pediatrician about the risks and benefits of taking a prescription cough suppressant. 

As with any other medication - prescription or not - there are potential risks and side effects you should be aware of before you take them yourself or give them to your child. Although a persistent cough can be bothersome and make it difficult to sleep, the potential dangers of taking a codeine-containing cough suppressant could be far worse. 

Sources:

"FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA evaluating the potential risks of using codeine cough-and-cold medicines in children". Drug Safety and Availability 1 Jul 15. United States Food and Drug Administration. US Department of Health and Human Services. 23 Jul 15. 

"Codeine-containing medicinal products for the treatment of cough or cold in paediatric patients". Human Medicines 24 Apr 15. European Medicines Agency. European Union. 23 Jul 15. 

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