Taking care of an ill child is challenging. On one hand, a parent wants more than anything in the world to relieve their child’s discomfort, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to have concerns about the potential side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It is also completely understandable that many well-meaning parents seek out remedies that are marketed as being “natural” because they believe that these types of remedies will be safer than conventional treatments. Unfortunately, many of these concerns are unfounded, since most so-called natural remedies are ineffective or even unsafe, as I have explained in my previous post.
Before I address a few specific bogus remedies for sick children here, I want to tackle a few equally bogus claims that are often raised during discussions of alternative approaches to health care. Whenever I question the safety or effectiveness of a “natural” remedy, I am invariably faced with one or more of the following rebuttals: natural means safer, natural means more effective, and finally, doctors only recommend drugs and surgery. None of these generalizations are remotely true, and here’s why:
Fallacy #1: Natural Mean Safe
It is a common theme in the world of alternative medicine that the more natural a treatment is, the safer it therefore must be. The opposite of that, that synthetic pharmaceutical agents are riskier or even unsafe, is almost always implied in these communications, if not implicitly stated. Which in the general spread of misinformation on the internet, equates pharmaceuticals to substances forged in an alleged mysterious laboratory deep in the bowels of the mythical Big Pharma secret headquarters on Skull Island. Even if any of that was the case, in reality, your body can’t differentiate between a natural chemical and a synthetic one. Chemicals are chemicals.
Some of the deadliest potential ingredients in existence were created in nature. A thimble full of botulinum toxin (the toxin behind botulism, and what drives the paralysis effect in Botox injections), to give just one example, would be enough to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States. Poison ivy is all-natural as well. As is snake venom. And poison is also often in the dose; even water, consumed in excess, can result in serious injury and even death.
Fallacy #2: Natural Means More Effective,
Your body doesn’t know the difference between the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) found in an orange and the synthesized version used in vitamin supplements. Both prevent or cure scurvy. Once again a chemical is a chemical. The only way to figure out what it does to us is to study it using a systematic approach that incorporates careful and thorough observations, experimentation, and consistent logic. In other words, we need science to help us understand.
Whether a proposed treatment comes from the leaves of a rare plant in the Brazilian rainforest, the hands of an “intuitive healer,” or the mind of a chemist in a corporate lab, the only way to demonstrate its safety and efficacy is through scientific study. Specifically, any potential treatment must be run through the gauntlet of medical research, starting with studying it through bench work in the lab, and ending with a large randomized controlled clinical trial study that accounts for biases, placebo effects, and as many potential confounding variables as possible. Absent appropriate evidence from clinical trials, and regardless of its origin, a potential treatment must remain just that, a potential treatment. And if a remedy has failed the test of science? It should be discarded.
Fallacy #3: Doctors Only Recommend Drugs and Surgery
To be fair, in modern medicine, we do recommend a lot of drugs and surgery. We do so because drugs and surgery have stamped out disease and suffering around the world, saved billions of lives, and pushed our average life expiration dates back considerably. But this is still a straw man representation of conventional medicine, one that is easy for critics to knock down because it is a superficial and inaccurate description of what medical doctors actually do.
Think of as many examples of preventive care and health-improving activities that you can. What did you come up with? Eating a balanced diet that avoids excessive caloric intake, regular exercise, reducing stress, smoking cessation, and adequate sleep, might be some of your answers. They are all non-pharmaceutical and non-surgical means of improving your health, and they are championed by conventional healthcare providers.
Although there is always room for improvement, across all medical specialties we try to limit the use of drugs and surgery whenever possible. When confronted with run-of-the-mill colds and coughs in children this time of year, I commonly recommend only watchful waiting and supportive care, such as encouraging fluids, judicious and safe use of over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, and TLC. Well, I always recommend TLC.
Now back to those bogus remedies for children I mentioned earlier. It would of course be impossible to provide a comprehensive list of all unproven remedies parents give their ill children. My intention is to provide a sampling here which might give you some guidance on how to think things through the next time your child is feeling under the weather.
Bogus remedy #1: Oscillococcinum
Oscillococcinum is a popular homeopathic remedy for flu and flu-like illnesses. Homeopathy in a nutshell, consists of taking a substance believed to cause symptoms in a healthy person, diluting it to the point where few if any molecules of that substance remain, and then giving it to an ill patient suffering from those symptoms. Usually the remedies start out as something real, like an herb or snake venom (yes, snake venom), but this isn’t the case with oscillococcinum.
In this remedy, tissue from the heart and liver of certain ducks are used because proponents of homeopathy believe that they contain a particular species of bacteria that are the true source of all your woes during a viral infection (news flash: viruses and bacteria are two different things). These bacteria, are then diluted beyond measure and sold to parents for as much as $1.65 a dose.
The next time you are at the store looking for a product to help relieve your child’s cold or flu symptoms, check the label to see if the product is homeopathic. Oscillococcinum is just one of many examples being sold without any good evidence that it’s effective.
There are many products on the market aimed at reducing the amount of crying in young infants with colic, a “condition” where infants around three weeks to three months in age seem to cry a lot more than is expected or thought to be normal. One of the most popular natural remedies is gripe water, a concoction that usually contains non-homeopathic amounts of things like fennel, dill, ginger and sodium bicarbonate.
It used to contain a concerning amount of alcohol. Today’s gripe water, which has yet to be proven effective in any clinical trials, usually doesn’t but because it is marketed as a dietary supplement these products avoid regulation by the FDA for safety and efficacy. The good thing is that colic responds best to simple and safe interventions such as pacifiers, swaddling, and white noise. But because crying almost always normalizes in colicky babies by 3-4 months, the best remedy is time. That’s about as all-natural as it gets!
Amber Bracelets and Necklaces
Another condition with more cultural inertia than actual evidence supporting it is teething, or more accurately symptoms related to teething. We know teething exists because of the end result (teeth!), and in some babies, they do experience a mild discomfort. However, no fever, excessive drooling, diarrhea, or extreme fussiness are directly a result of the eruption of a baby’s first set of chompers, despite anecdotal evidence.
Despite this, many parents believe that their children are suffering and seek out natural remedies and over-the-counter pain medications. Some of these remedies, such as homeopathic teething tablets, are as useless as Oscillococcinum. Equally ineffective, and also potentially dangerous, are amber bracelets and necklaces.
Despite a complete absence of evidence, the thinking is that pain-relieving natural chemicals from the amber leach into a teething infant’s body through the skin. That or they somehow correct imbalances in “human energy.” Unfortunately, these products serve as a potential choking hazard for young infants and should be avoided. Instead of nonsense, try a cold teething ring. It’s a much safer form of parental placebo and made from completely natural chemicals.