Herbal Supplements Questionable for Kids

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Thinking of treating your child’s illness with herbal supplements (search)? You may want to do some fact-checking and talk it over with a doctor first.

Herbal supplements are popular, but some may work better in kids than others, a new study shows. Echinacea, evening primrose oil, Andrographis paniculata, ivy leaf, and valerian yielded some interesting results. But garlic and cranberry didn’t seem helpful.

Is It Safe? Does It Work?

The researchers aren’t recommending any herbal products, and they’re not thrilled with results seen in the few studies of herbal medicine in kids.

Still, they didn’t want to look the other way. An estimated 20-40 percent of kids have been exposed to herbal products for everything from anxiety to insomnia to colds, they estimate.

“As more and more children are exposed to botanical products, it is important that the safety and efficacy of these treatments be well established in controlled clinical trials,” write the researchers.

Does Your Doctor Know?

The FDA doesn’t regulate over-the-counter supplements. That means the government doesn’t check what’s in each bottle, how well the products work, or even if they’re safe.

If you’re going to use an herbal supplement — or give it to a child — always let your doctor know. That way, they can watch out for potential side effects or dangerous interactions between conventional and herbal medicines.

Sifting Through the Evidence

The researchers pored over herbal medicine studies done from 1960-2003. Here’s what they found:

Andrographis paniculata (search), a traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, may help prevent and treat kids’ upper respiratory infections (search), such as the common cold. In the small study, 107 kids took a placebo or 200 mg of the herbal extract daily. After three months, the extract users had significantly fewer colds.

Cranberry cocktail juice (search) didn’t help avoid urinary tract infections (search) in children at risk for bladder infections.

Echinacea (search) may cut the length and severity of a child’s cold. In that study, kids took 2.5 to 5 milliliters of echinacea two or three times daily, depending on their age, with few side effects. But that study didn’t compare echinacea with a placebo. Another larger study comparing the herbal extract to a placebo showed that echinacea didn’t help kids’ upper respiratory symptoms. However, its use was associated with an increased risk of rash compared with a placebo.

—Evening primrose oil (search) may have some benefit for kids with dermatitis, a skin disorder. Studies comparing its use with a placebo show that the treatment may have some benefit in children.

—Garlic was no help as a cholesterol-lowering agent in children with a genetic predisposition to abnormally high bad 'LDL' cholesterol. In a small study of 30 kids with a family history of high cholesterol, garlic had no effect on blood cholesterol or other blood markers for heart disease risk.

Ivy leaf extracts (search) are used to treat upper respiratory infections and cough. In one study, it improved breathing in 24 kids with asthma who took the product for three to four weeks. In another study, cough tablets containing 65 milligrams of dried ivy leaf cut kids’ coughs by 92 percent.

Valerian root (search) extract may help sleep problems in children with intellectual deficits. That study had only five participants, all of whom were boys aged 7-14 years with intellectual deficits. The children had varying degrees of mental deficits, along with conditions such as epilepsy or ADHD, and different sleep problems. They took one dose of valerian or a placebo nightly for two weeks. The valerian takers got to sleep quicker and slept better and longer than those taking the placebo.

No information was available on chamomile, feverfew, ginger, gingko, or products with a combination of herbs.

The study was conducted by researchers including Gail Mahady, PhD, of the University of Illinois’ College of Pharmacy. Their report appears in the March edition of The Journal of Pediatrics.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Hrastinger, A. The Journal of Pediatrics, March 2005; vol 146: pp 311-317. News release, The Journal of Pediatrics.