When your child is struggling with uncomfortable symptoms, it’s understandable to want them to feel better as soon as possible. Over-the-counter children’s medicines are a common go-to remedy. They help distressed parents provide their children with fast relief. One of the most sought out OTC meds for children is antihistamines. A child’s version of diphenhydramine is especially popular. You’ll find this compound in medications like Benadryl, Unisom, Tylenol PM, and Advil PM. What you may not know is that these medications aren’t completely safe. They are not even recommended for children under six. And they don’t address the real cause of symptoms.

In this article, we’ll dig a little deeper into the use of antihistamines in children.

Why Do Parents Give Antihistamines to Children?

Let’s begin by looking into why parents give antihistamine medications to their children. Most reasons have to do with some type of allergic response or irritation. If it’s red or itches, parents respond with some form of antihistamine. On one website of diphenhydramine reviews, a parent wrote: “My kiddos are allergic to everything, and they live off of [diphenhydramine] and it acts fast and helps them.”

It makes a person wonder… is it good to live off medication? (No.) What’s making these kids “allergic to everything”? These medications spark many other questions when we look at how people use them.

Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies are a common reason parents will reach for an OTC antihistamine. Symptoms like frequent sneezing, an itchy or runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, or an itchy throat can be aggravating and distracting. They can keep a kid from participating in school, sports, or other activities. It’s nice to be able to reach for a spoonful of fruit-flavored liquid to make it all go away.

Another review from a parent: “My son has awful allergies at certain times of the year, so this product is great for him.” Is it, though? What are the long-term consequences of taking a medication every allergy season? What happens when the immune system isn’t allowed to function on its own?

Bug Bites, Eczema, and Chicken Pox

Bug bites, like mosquito or tick bites, are another reason parents will seek out a form of diphenhydramine or other child-friendly antihistamine medication. A parent wrote: “My oldest is allergic to mosquitos and ants. When she gets bit, this is what I give her, and it works amazingly.” Another parent wrote: “Helps child sleep when they’re sick. Stops itching when they have a rash or allergic reaction.”

The topical antihistamine cream version is popular for bite-induced or other rashes, including eczema and other skin conditions. Parents may also use it for chickenpox sores – to reduce itching and pain. Most parents won’t think twice about using these remedies on a regular basis. But does anyone ask why their child has severe reactions to bites or chronic skin conditions like eczema in the first place?

Food Allergies

According to one website of reviews, parents also use this medication for food allergy reactions. One parent wrote: “Great stuff to have around in case of an emergency! Kids can have reactions to bug bites and foods and this stuff works fast. I can’t count how many times this has helped me and my kids out from allergic reactions.”

Again, food allergies in kids are seen as a normal part of growing up. They aren’t. Getting food allergies tested is only the first step. Next is finding out what’s going on behind the scenes. What’s causing the gut inflammation that’s leading to food allergies? Is it really a good idea to ignore the gut while handing out medicine?

Sleep Promotion

Adults often reach for antihistamines as an occasional sleep aid for themselves. So, it’s not surprising when parents also turn to these medications for helping their children sleep. It’s an especially common practice in preparation for long car rides or airplane flights. But it’s not recommended for children –Even the companies that produce and sell these medications say that it’s not to be used that way. Again, antihistamines are drugs. Taking them disrupts and manipulates the body’s natural physiology.

How Diphenhydramine Works

Diphenhydramine works by blocking the action of histamine. Histamine is a substance released from certain white blood cells as a part of the immune response. Histamine causes symptoms associated with allergic reactions, such as redness, itching, watery eyes, and a runny nose. But there’s a reason the body responds that way. It’s creating an inflammatory response that calls healing molecules to that region. It’s like setting off a siren and calling emergency personnel to the area to respond to an accident or fire.

Do you want to suppress this healing response? Like we always say, the body doesn’t make mistakes. The inflammatory response is part of the body’s natural immune response. It’s there to protect us and keep us healthy. Because histamine serves as a neurotransmitter in the brain, blocking it can cause drowsiness, easing a child into sleep. But again, we’re suppressing the immune response to get a drowsy feeling.

Manipulating the body in this way will ultimately do more harm than good.

Problems with Antihistamines

While antihistamines work very well for symptoms, the problem is that’s all they do: treat symptoms. The underlying imbalances remain. That means you’re just temporarily avoiding uncomfortable feelings and symptoms. You’re suppressing signs of health issues and not working to create a healthy body. Handling health this way will only lead to more health problems down the road.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that antihistamines are drugs. They are not without side effects. While you may not notice immediate symptoms, these drugs can cause problems down the road.

Questionable Effects on The Brain

There is a study called Cocaine-like neurochemical effects of antihistaminic medications. It investigated H(1) histamine antagonists, like diphenhydramine. As mentioned, these are often given to children. According to research, these antihistamine medications activate the pleasure-reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. This can lead to desensitization, meaning that a person eventually needs more and more to achieve the same results. Regularly giving children antihistamines may create immune problems as they grow up.

Associated With Adverse Events

This medication is also associated with a large number of adverse events in children. A study of OTC medications from 2008 to 2015 found that liquid formulations of diphenhydramine were the most common cause of overdoses and adverse events. The most common adverse events included a racing heart, hallucinations, excessive sleeping, agitation, and dilated pupils.

Topical diphenhydramine isn’t necessarily safe, either. Diphenhydramine toxicity has been reported after it was used to alleviate chickenpox sores Diphenhydramine toxicity in three children with varicella-zoster infection.

There is a case report of the death of a child from topical diphenhydramine that was published in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine in 2009. While that’s a rare occurrence, it should not have happened.

What’s Really Going on With the Immune System?

When there are chronic immune stimulants in a child’s internal and external environment, certain immune cells are triggered repeatedly. These are the T helper cells or CD4 cells, a part of the body’s adaptive immune system. It’s the part of the immune system that learns about the body’s enemies and communicates with other immune cells to mount a defense.

Unfortunately, when you give a child an antihistamine of some sort, those T helper cells aren’t given a chance to acquire a protective, adaptive immune response. After a while, these immune cells get stressed, decreasing their ability to mount an immune response. Eventually, the next of defense has to step up –that’s the B cells. The B cells then step up to the plate, releasing histamine and creating overreactions, like allergies.

Getting allergy shots, vaccines, or taking antihistamines like diphenhydramine ultimately weakens the immune response by stressing it. In fact, a study published in 2011 confirmed that antihistamine drugs, including diphenhydramine, impaired the innate immune response.

Rather than stressing or shutting down the immune system with antihistamines, it’s important to remove the things that are causing the immune system to overreact over time. These are things like eating foods we’re allergic to, eating too much sugar, exposure to chemicals, lack of sleep, stress, and getting ongoing vaccinations.

When we remove those immune triggers, the body starts to calm down. The immune response returns to normal, and the body can get healing.

The Swiss Watch Philosophy to Health

Your body is many up of several systems that work in harmony like the gears of a Swiss Watch. Each gear affects all the others. If something is out of balance in one area of the body, it will have consequences for other areas. That’s where seemingly unrelated symptoms show up. Imbalances in the nervous system, gut, and immune system may show up on the skin, the mucus membranes, and other places. Those itchy red patches, food reactions, watery eyes, and more are all signs that the immune system is out of balance.

When the body is under stress due to chronic inflammation and an activated immune response, you’re going to see more of a response to common proteins in the environment, whether that’s food, pollen, bacteria, bites, or other factors. An overactive immune system is an indication that there’s an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

The Wellness Way Can Help

At The Wellness Way, we don’t guess; we test. Eating foods that you’re sensitive to creates an immune response and the inflammation and allergic responses that go along with it. Bring your child in to get their food allergies tested. They can change over time as the immune system adapts and changes. Doing a stool test can also be enlightening, as you can discover overgrowths or parasitic infections that set off the immune system, leading to allergies and other symptoms. When it comes to the immune response, don’t just suppress it; address it. Contact a Wellness Way clinic near you to start your child on the journey to healing.

Resources:

  1. Hasala, H., Moilanen, E., Janka-Junttila, M., Giembycz, M. A., & Kankaanranta, H. (2007). First-generation antihistamines diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine reverse cytokine-afforded eosinophil survival by enhancing apoptosis. Allergy and asthma proceedings28(1), 79–86. https://doi.org/10.2500/aap.2007.28.2961
  2. Tanda, G., Kopajtic, T. A., & Katz, J. L. (2008). Cocaine-like neurochemical effects of antihistaminic medications. Journal of neurochemistry106(1), 147–157. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-4159.2008.05361.x
  3. Palmer, R. B., Reynolds, K. M., Banner, W., Bond, G. R., Kauffman, R. E., Paul, I. M., Green, J. L., & Dart, R. C. (2020). Adverse events associated with diphenhydramine in children, 2008-2015. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa.)58(2), 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1080/15563650.2019.1609683
  4. Chan, C. Y., & Wallander, K. A. (1991). Diphenhydramine toxicity in three children with varicella-zoster infection. DICP : the annals of pharmacotherapy25(2), 130–132. https://doi.org/10.1177/106002809102500204
  5. Turner, J. W. (2009). Death of a Child From Topical Diphenhydramine. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 30(4), p 380-381. doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e31819df748
  6. Jelley-Gibbs, D. M., Dibble, J. P., Filipson, S., Haynes, L., Kemp, R. A., & Swain, S. L. (2005). Repeated stimulation of CD4 effector T cells can limit their protective function. The Journal of experimental medicine201(7), 1101–1112. https://doi.org/10.1084/jem.20041852
  7. Jutel, M., Blaser, K., & Akdis, C. A. (2006). The role of histamine in regulation of immune responses. Chemical immunology and allergy91, 174–187. https://doi.org/10.1159/000090280
  8. Valenta, R., Hochwallner, H., Linhart, B., & Pahr, S. (2015). Food allergies: the basics. Gastroenterology148(6), 1120–31.e4. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2015.02.006

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