Connecticut issues warning to parents about dangers of misusing antihistamines

ENJOLI FRANCIS

Parents and caregivers in Connecticut this month are being warned about the dangers of administering antihistamines such as Benadryl to children in order to get them to calm down or go to sleep.

Dr. Kirsten Bechtel, an associate professor of pediatrics and of emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and cofounder of the state's Child Fatality Review Panel, said a "watershed" had sparked the public health alert.

According to the panel, "there have been at least four deaths in Connecticut of infants and toddlers over the past year due to toxicity from Benadryl or other antihistamines like Chlorpheniramine (Chlortrimeton)."

Bechtel described the four deaths as a "cluster," telling ABC News on Tuesday that to her knowledge, before 2015, there had been four in the last 15 years. The review panel examines the deaths of all children younger than 18 that are reported by the medical examiner.

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According to the public health alert, an online poll done in 2011 found that of more than 26,000 mothers who responded, one in five admitted to giving their children medicine such as Benadryl or Dramamine to get through a lengthy event, like a long car ride or plane trip.

While online, opt-in polls are not considered scientific, according to this poll mentioned in the alert, 12 percent of the mothers who responded also said that they regularly dosed their children with sleep-inducing medication, like Benadryl or Dramamine, just to get some peace and quiet on a normal night.

Benadryl, whose generic name is diphenhydramine, is used to treat allergy symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing, itchy throats and itchy and watery eyess. Common side effects include sleepiness, fatigue and headaches. Benadryl also markets itself as a sleep aid.

Anne Mahoney, Windham County State Attorney, told ABC News Tuesday she had no idea that parents frequently used medications like Benadryl to calm their children. Mahoney also sits on the review panel.

On Friday, lawyers from Mahoney's office were in court as Justine Barber, 30, of Brooklyn, Connecticut, was sentenced for her role in the Feb. 10, 2015 fatal drugging of her 8-month-old daughter.

According to Mahoney, Barber and her boyfriend Kevin Hartshorn, 34, also of Brooklyn, Connecticut, had been routinely giving the baby as well as two other children -- both younger than 2 -- soft gel pills as a "solution" to bedtime.

The Norwich Bulletin said the soft gel pills were of the Sleep Aid brand.

Mahoney said that both parents had a hand in the dosing, with Barber melting a 25-milligram blue pill in hot water and then adding the mixture to the children's formula or milk. Mahoney said this was done two to three times a week, with Barber preparing the bottles before leaving for work and Hartshorn giving them to the children as they got ready for nighttime.

"[It's] just a tragedy all the way around," Mahoney said.

Both Barber and Hartshorn pleaded guilty to one count of criminally negligent homicide and two counts of risk of injury to a minor. Hartshorn received two years; Barber, 15 months.

Benadryl and other cough and cold medications are not recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for children younger than 2 because of the risk of potentially life threatening complications.

Even in children older than 2, medications must be dosed appropriately for the child's weight. Experts also urge parents to take caution not to mix Benadryl with other sedating medications.

In a statement to ABC News, Mike Tringale, senior director of communications and public affairs at Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said: "More than 50 million Americans suffer from symptoms of hay fever or other upper respiratory allergies, especially in the springtime each year, and today there are more over-the-counter (OTC) medicine options than ever before, including products containing diphenhydramine and other antihistamines, to safely and effectively treat adults and children.

The Drug Facts Label on every OTC allergy product containing diphenhydramine or other antihistamines already provides clear and important guidance for consumers on ingredients, uses, directions, and warnings, including 'do not use to make a child sleepy,' and 'keep out of reach of children."

"OTC medicines for allergies provide a critical health benefit to consumers and a direct cost savings for the healthcare system. OTCs are a trusted and affordable way to get well, stay well, and feel well when used as labeled."

Yale's Bechtel said today that while there were case reports on the adverse effects of diphenhydramine on infants, there was no scientific evidence on how common the practice is among parents. She said the next step for the panel was taking the message to social media as well as other medical centers in the state.

"We want to make sure that more parents don't do this," Mahoney said. "We have to do a better job of teaching parents how to cope [with their children.]"

"These are preventable deaths for these children," Bechtel said.