Codeine and Tramadol Can Cause Breathing Problems in Children

Jun 27 • 3 min read

Who likes having a cough? No one. So, you always have a few medications stocked in your cabinet to treat that persistent, annoying cough. And when your children have a cough, you’re likely quick to help them by giving them a dose of cough syrup. But before you restock on cough medicine in preparation for the flu and cold season in a few months, you might want to look at what ingredients are in your medications, specifically in your children’s medications.

In April, the FDA announced stricter regulations for codeine, an opioid pain reliever commonly mixed into cough and cold medicines, and tramadol, another opioid pain reliever that was previously prescribed to children after surgery. Experts cautioned against the use of the drugs for children under 12 and a restriction of use for children between 12 and 18, especially if they are obese, or already have breathing difficulties to begin with, such as lung disease or sleep apnea.

codeine found in cough syrup

Adults can metabolize these opioids normally, and they don’t pose a threat unless in the case of an overdose. But even the slightest dose of codeine and tramadol can cause a potentially harmful effect in children. For some children, they can fail to metabolize the drugs effectively, which often causes parents to give them more medication to see the effects kick in. In others, metabolization occurs too quickly. Both of these scenarios lead to side effects of confusion, limpness, and serious breathing problems that can result in death. Experts have also placed warnings for breastfeeding mothers, as these medications can expose unsafe levels to their infants through breast milk.

While pediatricians are leaning away from prescribing medications that contain the drugs, codeine is still found in over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. Yes, this means you’ll have to carefully read that intimidating list of ingredients. Fortunately, the FDA has required new warning labels on all medications containing tramadol or codeine, so the names will be easier to spot now.

What can you give your children instead? There are plenty of over-the-counter medications that don’t contain codeine, such as Robitussin and Delsym, for children. There’s also a natural remedy that may be equally as effective as any typical cough syrup, if not more so. A 2012 study revealed that honey can control children’s coughing, and improve their quality of sleep. Compared to children who were given placebos before bed, children who were given a spoonful of honey coughed less at night and were able to stay asleep for longer periods of time as a result. And the best part? Your child will probably prefer a spoonful of honey over cough syrup any day.

But also, it turns out children are very resilient (who knew!). So save yourself the money, because your child will be back on their feet, causing trouble around the house in no time, with or without the help of any cough syrups or honey.


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