Are Alternative Remedies Safe?
Many are, say experts. With some, though, use caution.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), approximately 12 percent of parents in the U.S. use some form of alternative medicine for their kids — herbal supplements, homeopathy, massage or diet-based therapies.
Despite a lack of research on the effectiveness of these treatments, people continue to use alternatives to prescription drugs in treating numerous ailments and many say they do so with some success. But how can parents know what works and what should not be a substitute for conventional medicine?
If you’re thinking of adding an alternative remedy to a child’s treatment or substituting one for prescription medicine, “Check with your child’s pediatrician first,” says Kate Cronan, MD, medical editor for KidsHealth.org and a pediatrician at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. An alternative remedy could interfere with other medications, or your child could be at risk if conventional treatment is delayed.
Little research has been done on the safety and effectiveness of alternative remedies in children, so it’s best to proceed with caution. Here’s a look at alternative options — ones to avoid and others that could be worth trying.
Though herbal supplements are among the most popular alternative remedies, the Mayo Clinic advises against giving them to kids younger than age 18.
Research on herbal supplements “has been done almost exclusively in adults,” says Dr. Cronan. “Since medications work differently in adults than in children, we don’t know what is safe. Herbal supplements are not FDA-approved so the preparations could have impurities, and if a patient is on other medications, herbal supplements can interfere with them.”
“Alternative therapies are not only things found in a jar,” says Dr. Cronan. “Meditation, massage and art and music therapies can be helpful to treat illnesses that have resulted in anxiety. They’re very safe and it won’t hurt to add them to conventional treatments.”
According to NCCAM, meditation is often used to help treat anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia and symptoms of chronic illnesses such as cancer and their treatments. While research is limited on massage and other relaxation therapies, many people find them helpful in relieving pain and anxiety.
Elimination diets, in which certain foods are removed from a child’s diet, have become popular in treating children with conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “Children with ADHD may benefit from removing artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives from their diet,” says Sarah Dickinson Murray, licensed naturopathic practitioner and founder of Pure Healing Insight, LLC in Wilmington, DE.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, several studies have indicated that symptoms of ADHD may improve in some children with the removal of artificial additives from their diets.
Dr. Cronan says, “There is no harm in eliminating artificial substances from anyone’s diet. It may not help a condition, but it’s worth trying.” However, she warns parents to be cautious in removing a food group considered healthy and necessary from a child’s diet.
Homeopathy, a more than 200-year-old system of medicine, uses highly diluted biologically active substances to stimulate the body to fix itself. Homeopathic medicines are different from herbal supplements in that they are highly diluted, regulated by the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) and must meet certain FDA standards.
Homeopathic remedies are generally considered safe, though critics question their effectiveness and many consider any positive results to be nothing more than a placebo effect. “Homeopathy is very individualized,” says Todd Hoover, MD, family physician and doctor of homeopathic medicine in Narberth, PA. “Rather than treating a disease, we’re treating a patient with a disease, so what works for one person may not work for another.”
For instance, for children who are teething, chamomilla (chamomile) is recommended for a teething child with irritability who must be walked, rocked and moved constantly and has one red cheek. For children who teethe later and have a history of problems with milk and digestion, calcarea phosphorica is recommended. Both are over-the-counter remedies.
Another common homeopathic remedy for children is pulsatilla for ear
infections. Dr. Hoover says, “Doctors now are often recommending that parents watch and wait to see if the infection clears on its own. During this watch-and-wait period, you can ask your pediatrician about trying a homeopathic treatment. If the homeopathic treatment isn’t working, then use the antibiotics once the pediatrician recommends them.”
Integrative medicine is a blending of conventional and alternative medicine that has shown some evidence of effectiveness. Doctors of integrative medicine are trained in both conventional medicine and alternative remedies.
Ronald Ciccone, MD, doctor of both family and integrative medicine at Lourdes Wellness Center in Collingswood, NJ recommends amino acids as a treatment for children with ADHD. “Rather than putting kids with ADHD and other behavioral problems on Ritalin or other prescription drugs, we do a urine test to see which of their neurotransmitters need balancing,” he says. “We then give amino acids that work with those neurotransmitters. Amino acids are very natural and safe and don’t have the side effects of prescription drugs.”
Susan Stopper is a contributing writer to MetroKids.