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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health, buying cholesterol drugs over the counter and the controversy over giving cold and cough medicines to young children.

A new poll from NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health finds most parents cast a cautious vote of confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the drugs for children.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Shannon Dalrymple knows all the tricks of the trade. As the mom of three small children, she has mastered the vaporizer, steam baths, and if she's overdosed the kids on anything, it's TLC. But she says when none of this seems like enough, she resorts to cold medicines.

Ms. SHANNON DALRYMPLE: I'm not a person who thinks that they cure a cold. But I've seen them give my children relief.

AUBREY: Dalrymple says she believes over-the-counter cold medicines are safe for children two and older, and she's a lot like the solid majority of parents polled by NPR, Kaiser and Harvard.

Ms. DALRYMPLE: I mean, I take my time at the - any store I buy drugs. I'll even talk to a pharmacist there if I'm confused about what the medicines are because you want to know what's in this. And I don't want to overmedicate. I feel like if you put your mind to it, you can use these drugs safely.

AUBREY: Dalrymple says these days, from play groups in her hometown of Louisville to chat rooms with moms across the country, there's a lot of talk about the medicines.

The NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll found 86 percent of parents are aware of the controversy.

Ms. DALRYMPLE: Once they pulled these items this fall, that's when people really started talking, at least around me.

AUBREY: She is referring to the drug makers' decision in October to pull infant cold and cough formulations off the market.

A week later, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration recommended that manufacturers stop marketing the drugs to children under the age of six. The FDA has not decided whether to put any restrictions on cold medicines for kids.

But Todd Schwartz, a dad from Eugene, Oregon who took the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll, says since most deaths have been associated with overdosing, he thinks families need to be educated on how to use them properly.

Mr. TODD SCHWARTZ: I think most people are smart enough to figure it out. But I do believe there is a segment of the population that despite all of the information from drug companies and doctors, they will still make mistakes.

AUBREY: Like half of those polled, Schwartz thinks parents and their doctors should decide for themselves whether the medicines seem effective. Schwartz says he thinks the FDA would be going too far if it restricted sales of the drugs.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I mean, that'd be like saying we need to take highways away because some people can't drive. It's not practical to remove them all.

AUBREY: Some pediatricians say families don't need instructions on how to use the medications; they need to be told not to use them at all. That's the take of pediatrician Janet Serwint, who we caught up with between rounds and meetings.

Dr. JANET SERWINT (Johns Hopkins University): We're at Johns Hopkins Hospital. We're going to go over here.

AUBREY: Serwint said she was really too busy to do an interview, but she squeezed it in because she thinks the poll results show that many parents aren't really seeing the full picture. She explains fixed, separate clinical trials of over-the-counter cold medicines have shown the drugs are no more effective than placebo in relieving symptoms.

Dr. SERWINT: And in all of those studies there was no benefit to the cough and cold medication.

AUBREY: And Serwint says they can be dangerous. She acknowledges that overdosing is a top concern, but she says she's seen nasty side effects at recommended doses.

In one case a three-year-old was admitted with a racing heartbeat.

Dr. SERWINT: I have seen many other children, most of them three or four years of age, who have come in to either the clinic or the emergency room feeling that bugs or spiders are crawling on them. I've also seen patients who've had arrhythmias, so abnormal heartbeats from these medicines, again, when they've been given correctly.

AUBREY: Serwint was among a handful of pediatricians who drafted a petition to the FDA earlier this year asking them to halt the marketing of the drugs to young children.

Drug makers maintain the medicines are safe and effective for children over two when used as directed and should not be restricted. But Serwint says even if the government doesn't take action, her hope is that pediatricians will advise against them.

That's what may be happening already, according to Penny Zmikly, who lives in Canton, Michigan. She's the mom of three small children; she's called her pediatrician with questions about cold medicines.

Ms. PENNY ZMIKLY: I said, you know, well, what can my two-year-old take to give her some decongestant relief? And the doctor's, like, well, you know, normally it just kind of has to run its course, and you know, sometimes these medicines don't really work on little kids.

AUBREY: Zmikly says she's used the medicines with her four-year-old twins and it seems to help them. But if her pediatrician told her to stop, Zmikly says she'd listen. She's not alone. Our poll found a solid majority of parents say their pediatrician is their most trusted source of information about these drugs.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to read the full results of the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll, go to npr.org/yourhealth.

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