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Children's medicines can be hard to find right now. Here are some alternatives


Spare a thought, would you, for parents of small children this holiday season. There's a tripledemic in the U.S., the flu, RSV and COVID, and it's wiping out over-the-counter children's medicines from drug store shelves. Doctors say there is no need to panic. There are alternatives. We're joined this morning by Dr. Christina Johns, who specializes in pediatric emergency medicine in Annapolis, Md. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINA JOHNS: Thank you so much for having me.

ESTRIN: Dr. Johns, this is really shocking. I've been reading about shortages of children's Tylenol, children's Motrin. I mean, these are the basics. What is the reason for these shortages?

JOHNS: You know, right now, because we are seeing such a surge of pediatric illnesses, and so while we've got lots of sick kids, there's a lot of a need for things like over-the-counter pain and fever reducer medicines.

ESTRIN: So if I may ask your advice on behalf of our listeners, if your kid does get a fever and you can't get your hands on over-the-counter medicines, what should people do?

JOHNS: So I have a couple of thoughts on it. I think, first of all, people are very used to getting what they're used to, and I would encourage folks to know that there are generic formulations of ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which is commonly known as Tylenol. And so look for those. I think also get some guidance from your pediatrician. Those persons will know exactly what are the good options in your area and may have some insights in where to go to be able to find some medications. I think also chewables for older children, and of course, there's always a rectal suppository for very young babies for Tylenol.

ESTRIN: What about younger kids? Like, if you have regular adult Tylenol, for example - I was just looking through my medicine cabinet. Most of the pain relievers I have say safe for kids 12 and up, but what about younger kids? Can younger kids take those?

JOHNS: You know, we really don't encourage folks trying to give either a half of a capsule or break up a tablet. Dosing is very intentional in pediatrics and it's based on weight, and so it's very difficult to get a precise dose if you do it that way. So that's generally something that we encourage folks not to do.

ESTRIN: What about a popsicle or just taking a bath? I mean, you know, any home remedies that you might recommend?

JOHNS: Yeah. You know, these are really great options. I always say to folks, when kids are over about 6 to 8 weeks of age, remember that by and large, you want to treat the child and not the number. And so if they are comfortable and feeling OK and acting well, then maybe it is time to lean into things like a lukewarm bath or a popsicle. Other comfort measures like lots and lots of fluids - that can really help.

ESTRIN: Let me ask you a kind of a counterintuitive question. Would having a fever actually be helpful as long as it's not too extreme?

JOHNS: You know, the fever is the body's way of mounting an immune response. So I'm not afraid of fever per se because it's a signal to me that the body's doing what it needs to do to fight whatever infection is ongoing. I think it's important to note that some children, 1 in 5, in fact, will have something called febrile seizures, where when the rate of rise of temperature is very steep, then they will actually have a seizure. And this can be very dramatic, very frightening. It is typically a harmless phenomenon that goes away by the time children enter elementary school.

ESTRIN: At what point should a parent call a pediatrician?

JOHNS: So my general feeling about it is that when a parent is concerned, regardless of the reason, that's the time to check in with their child's pediatrician. That is what we are here for. Certainly, for any newborn, any baby who is less than 4 to 6 weeks of age and they have a fever of over 100.4, that is a situation that must have a pediatrician call for guidance. And older than that, the things that I generally look for are, is the child having difficulty breathing? Are they not being as responsive as usual? Are they so sleepy that they are hard to talk to? Of course, whenever anyone has a fever, you don't feel 100%, but your child still should be responding to you and able to follow directions developmentally appropriately. You know, listen to your parental instinct, and if something seems not right, make that call.

ESTRIN: Dr. Christina Johns, emergency pediatrician and also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thanks so much for your advice.

JOHNS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.