Safety tips for parents whose kids like the taste of medicine

Here's how parents can teach their kids to be safe around medicine. (Getty Images)
Here's how parents can teach their kids to be safe around medicine. (Getty Images)

“How do I get my kids to take medicine?” is one of the most common questions parents ask Dr. Debra Langlois, a pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. But as children's medicine and supplements are increasingly designed to appeal to kids — think sweet flavorings and gummies — another concern has emerged: What happens if your kid likes the taste of medicine too much?

“Giving kids medicine is difficult because a lot of medicines do taste bad, so in order for them to take medicine, we typically flavor it and make it look appetizing like candy,” Dr. Rudy Kink, a pediatric emergency specialist at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, tells Yahoo Life. National pharmacy chains such as Walgreens even offer options for parents to pay extra for flavorings like “Awesome Apple,” “Blastin’ Bubblegum” or “Giggly Grape.”

“Unfortunately, some kids can’t distinguish candy from medicine and when they should take it,” says Kink. In his 14 years working in a pediatric emergency room, he says, he's seen an increase in poisonings — from intentional overdoses, to teens trying dangerous social media experiments, such as the Benadryl challenge, to accidental ingestions among young children who mistook melatonin and cannabis gummies for candy — that aligns with national trends.

Want to keep your kids safe around medicine? Here’s what experts recommend.

Medicine should be kept out of reach of little children, Langlois tells Yahoo Life; this could entail putting a lock on the cabinet to create a physical barrier. She reminds parents that they should know where medicine is at all times and remember to return it to a safe place after administering it.

Parents should ask visitors and overnight houseguests to make sure their medicine is inaccessible, Kink adds. That includes grandparents who might have medication in the bag they’ve set on the floor where it could be easily reached by a curious child.

Most importantly, “If you have concerns that someone isn’t able to keep themselves safe with medications, whether it’s your toddler impulsively thinking everything is an M&M or your teenager engaging in self-harm, lock up medication and make sure that they are talking to somebody about it,” Shannon Hourigan, a child psychologist and instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Yahoo Life.

“Use medication judiciously from day one,” Langlois tells Yahoo Life. This includes over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol as well as vitamins and supplements. In general, other than a vitamin D supplement for a breastfed infant, most children with well-balanced diets do not need separate vitamins and supplements.

Instead of reaching for the Tylenol first, Langlois urges parents to try alternatives. A teething baby, for example, may be soothed with a cool washcloth or a teething ring.

When a child has a fever, the rule of thumb is to look at and treat the child instead of the temperature on the thermometer, Langlois adds. “If you have a child who has a fever but they are otherwise eating well, drinking well, sleeping well, playing well, you don’t have to necessarily treat that with Tylenol or ibuprofen because fever is our body’s natural way of fighting bodily infections.”

Kink has similar advice. “I always use and recommend medicine as a last resort,” he says.

Parents should also reach out to the pediatrician before administering any medicine, vitamin or supplement, especially if their kid is on prescription medicine, because there could be a potential interaction.

“Kids don’t, largely, understand medicine,” Hourigan says. “They might understand ‘I get this when I’m sick’ [or] ‘This helps me feel better,’ but they don’t understand ‘If I have too much of the thing, it could make me sick.’”

For younger children, some medications can feel like a special treat, especially because most of them are flavored to taste like candy. “If your kindergartener is asking for Tylenol, that in and of itself isn’t a reason to be worried,” Hourigan says. In many ways, it may even be developmentally normal, like when a young child asks for a Band-Aid even when it’s not necessary.

Hourigan recommends that parents pay attention to the entire picture so they can better understand the context of why a kid is asking for medicine. Does a younger child want Tylenol because they want to taste something sweet, do they feel unwell or do they want the extra attention they may receive when they are sick?

If you don’t think medicine is medically necessary, she suggests using those context clues to guide a response. If a child is seeking attention, you can say, “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well” and then offer to snuggle or spend time together in another way. If an older child gets headaches or tummy aches on Sunday nights or before a big test or game, it could be anxiety or stress.

Before dispensing medicine, Hourigan suggests parents to acknowledge the symptoms, open a dialogue for kids to process their feelings and make it clear there are other ways to treat those symptoms besides medication — such as a soothing washcloth for a headache. Parents can also acknowledge their child’s emotions and express confidence in them by saying, “I know it can be hard, but I know you can handle it.”

It’s also important to recognize that there are times when kids do need medicine, and that parents should teach them how to ask for it appropriately, says Hourigan. If your child has allergies that flare up in the spring, they need to know how to recognize the symptoms and ask for medicine that may ease their discomfort. Or, if your teenage daughter has menstrual cramps or your son is getting his braces tightened, they need to know when and how much Advil to safely take.

“Part of raising an adult is having someone who can tolerate having a bottle of Advil on the counter and not feeling like they are going to take it all,” Hourigan says. She believes it is a parent’s job to teach kids how to ask for and use medicine responsibly.

She recommends that parents begin having clear and explicit discussions about medicine when their kids are young. Let them know “medication is OK when parents give it to you, because we know your doctor has told us what the right amount of this medicine is, but too much medicine can make our bodies really, really sick and too much medicine can make our bodies stop working.”

These early conversations should emphasize not taking medicine unless a parent gives it to you. As kids become older and more autonomous, they can learn to manage their medications themselves, including using the correct dosage, storing it safely and taking it only when they truly need it — and not because it tastes good or to join in on a risky social media challenge.

Finally, if you think your child has ingested too much of a medicine, call poison control at 800-222-1222, even if they don’t have symptoms. In the event of an apparent overdose, call 911 for immediate medical attention.