Too many kids abuse over-the-counter headache medicine: study
June 10, 2004

VANCOUVER (CP) - Too many kids are using over-the-counter headache medicines far more often than they should without telling their parents and not understanding how dangerous it could be, says a new study.

"I've been astounded by the large numbers of kids using over-the-counter medications five or six times a week, sometimes 15 to 20 times a week," said Dr. David Rothner, director of the Pediatric-Adolescent Headache Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Rothner will present his study at a Vancouver convention of the American Headache Society taking place Thursday and Friday.

He said he's seen some young patients suffer kidney failure or intestinal bleeding because of all the medication they were taking.

"Physicians need to specifically ask children and adolescents who get headaches how much over-the-counter medicine they are using," Rothner said in a news release outlining his study.

Rothner was unavailable for comment because he was travelling to the conference Wednesday.

He studied 680 children between the ages of six and 18. All had been referred to the Cleveland headache clinic.

Rothner found more than 20 per cent of them overused over-the-counter pain killers.

That means they took more than three doses a week for more than six weeks.

And although Rothner and his research partners didn't track the numbers, they estimated about one in seven children and adolescents admitted to using the drugs without telling their parents.

"The kids weren't doing it surreptitiously, they just didn't realize that their parents should be consulted before they took the medications," Rothner said.

Rothner noted the prevalence of chronic daily headaches increases as children get older and by age 15, about 15 per cent of kids suffer from them.

He found that one popular medication being used by young people is marketed as a migraine remedy and it contains aspirin, which children shouldn't have until they are at least 19 years old because it has been linked to potentially deadly Reye's syndrome.

Most of the kids he studied, though, were taking acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen. All are available without a prescription.

Aside from the health effects of taking too many over-the-counter drugs, Rothner also said he suspects it may lead to rebound headaches and may also turn tension-type headaches into more severe migraines.

Research shows this happens to adults, but experts had thought the same thing didn't happen in children and adolescents.

But it's increasingly apparent that it does, Rothner said.

He said parents whose children are suffering from repeated headache should understand it's not their fault.

"All school kids are under stress, but some children and adolescents seem to be biologically predisposed to having headaches and stress may play a significant role," he said.

"We were surprised to discover that it's not the parents pressuring the kids, it's the kids pressuring themselves. You've got a group of Type-A kids who want to do well and are pushing themselves."

Rothner said most of the kids in his study named school as their main stressor. Headaches became a convenient way to avoid school.

"Part of the cure is that they must go back to school," said Rothner. "They need tough love.

"They often benefit from professional help to learn how to deal with the stress and pain. If needed, a doctor can prescribe medication to prevent the headaches."