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What To Do During the Children’s Medicine Shortage

Now’s the time to teach older kids to swallow pills

Mother giving child medicine to take with water.

Your poor kiddo is coughing, sniffling and maybe even running a fever. Like any good parent, you rush to the nearest drugstore to grab a pain reliever suitable for kids, only to find the shelves empty. The same is true at the next drugstore … and the next.

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This winter’s so-called “tripledemic” — with cases of the flu, COVID-19 and RSV on the rise — has led to a shortage of children’s pain relief medications. What’s a parent to do?

Pediatrician Richard So, MD, shares some options for helping ease your sick kid’s symptoms.

First ask: Are pain meds even necessary?

This might seem counterintuitive, but just because your child has a fever doesn’t mean they’re necessarily unwell. A fever is part of the immune system’s attempt to fight off an infection — but not all fevers need to be treated.

In fact, if your thermometer shows that they have a fever but they seem to be otherwise in good spirits, you don’t need to do much of anything at all.

“Remember, a fever is not a disease,” Dr. So says. “It’s one of the signs that tells us that something is going on with your child. If your child has a fever but is acting and playing normally, we don’t advise you to treat that fever.”

Tips to help children take pills

Of course, if your child has a fever and seems miserable, that’s another story. In that case, here’s how to proceed.

Teach older kids to swallow pills

You may have thought that only adults could take pain relief medications in pill form. But they’re safe for kids ages 6 and up, too, as long as they can swallow them.

“Sometimes, parents are shocked to learn this,” Dr. So says. “The thinking is that liquid is for kids and pills are for adults. But 200 milligrams of medicine is 200 milligrams of medicine, no matter what form.”

Try these steps for teaching your child to swallow a pill:

  1. Start by teaching them to swallow something familiar, like a piece of macaroni and cheese or a piece of corn.
  2. When they’ve mastered that, advance to a Tic Tac®, then an M&M®.
  3. Once your child can confidently swallow an M&M or a Skittle®, they’re probably ready for an ibuprofen or Tylenol® tablet, Dr. So says. “If they can swallow bites of food, they probably can swallow a pill. A lot of it is mental.”

When they’ve successfully made the switch, you’ll no longer have to rely on liquids, during this shortage and beyond.

For younger children, crush up a pill

Remember what we just said about dosages? As long as the dosage is right, the form can vary. That means for younger kids, you can hide a crushed-up pill in a food you know they’ll eat.

“For toddlers, you can try crushing chewable tablets to mix in ice cream, yogurt, applesauce or chocolate syrup,” Dr. So advises.

Just make sure you know which cold and flu products are safe for your child. And it’s always best to talk to your healthcare provider first, especially before giving any kind of medication to infants.

Keep kids comfortable in other ways

When your child is sick, you feel like you’ll do anything to try to ease their discomfort. Typically, a fever will break on its own, but in the meantime, here are a few things you can try:

  • Cold compresses: “Sponge bathing — rubbing a cold compress on your child’s forehead or behind their neck for comfort — may help a little bit,” Dr. So notes.
  • Saline spray: This over-the-counter option helps flush irritants from the nasal lining, which can clear up some of that stuffiness.
  • Humidifier: Using a humidifier can help alleviate cough and congestion.

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Be sure that sick kids get plenty of rest and fluids, too, which are both critical to the recovery process.

Don’t hoard medications

During this shortage, some stores have put a limit on how many bottles of children’s pain relief medication you can purchase at one time.

But just because a store doesn’t have a limit in place doesn’t mean you should clear their shelves. “Take only what you need and leave some for other worried parents with a sick child,” Dr. So states.

Get rid of expired medicine

Got some old liquid pain reliever somewhere in the back of your medicine cabinet? If the expiration date has passed, throw it out — yes, even in a shortage.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that expired medicine is less effective and could even be dangerous because of the chemical changes that can happen over time.

Know when to seek care

Dr. So says if you’ve tried everything and your kid isn’t getting any better (or seems to be getting worse), then it’s time to seek medical care. “If your kid has a fever, feels under the weather, is a little glassy-eyed and not acting right, then it’s time to bring them in so we can run some tests.”

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