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Overview of Drug Treatment in Children

By

Bridgette L. Jones

, MD, MS, University of Missouri, Kansas City, School of Medicine, Children's Mercy, Kansas City, MO

Last full review/revision May 2018| Content last modified May 2018
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Topic Resources

Drug treatment in children differs from that in adults, most obviously because it is usually based on weight or surface area. Doses (and dosing intervals) differ because of age-related variations in drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination (see Pharmacokinetics in Children). A child cannot safely receive an adult drug dose, nor can it be assumed that a child’s dose is proportional to an adult’s dose (ie, that a 7-kg child requires 1/10 the dose of a 70-kg adult).

Most drugs have not been adequately studied in children, but federal legislation (the Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act of 2001 and the Pediatric Research Equity Act of 2003, both made permanent in 2012—1; see also the FDA 2016 status report) provides the statutory and regulatory authority to begin those studies.

General reference

Adverse effects and toxicity

Children are generally subject to the same adverse effects as adults (see Adverse Drug Reactions), but they have increased risk with certain drugs because of differences in pharmacokinetics or because of drug effects on growth and development. Some common drugs with unique or higher risk of adverse effects in children are listed in Table Drugs Manifesting Unusual Toxicity in Children.

Table
icon

Drugs Manifesting Unusual Toxicity in Children

Drug

Clinical Syndrome

Mechanism

Comments

Anesthetics, topical (eg, benzocaine, mixture of lidocaine and prilocaine)

Cyanosis

Formation of methemoglobin (ferrous iron oxidized to ferric iron)

Incidence rare

Ceftriaxone

Bilirubin displaced from albumin

Affects only neonates

Codeine*

Respiratory depression

Death

Ultrarapid metabolization of codeine to morphine

Genetic variant

Deaths have occurred after surgery and in a breastfed infant whose mother took codeine

Diphenoxylate

Respiratory depression

Death

CNS depression (in immature CNS)

Overdose syndrome, usually in children < 2 yr

Fluoroquinolones

Cartilage toxicity

Unknown

Suspected based on animal studies, but adverse effects in humans unproved—short-term use may be safe

Lindane (topical)

Seizures

CNS toxicity

Probably enhanced absorption in children

Should not be used in children < 50 kg (alternative should be used)

Prochlorperazine

Altered CNS function

Extrapyramidal effects

Opisthotonus

Bulging fontanelles

Actions via multiple CNS receptors

Febrile and dehydrated infants especially at risk

SSRIs

Suicidal ideation

Unknown

Increased incidence of suicidal ideation in children and adolescents

Tetracycline

Discoloration and pitting of tooth enamel

Chelation with calcium in growing teeth

Not given to children < 8 yr

*See also the American Academy of Pediatrics' clinical report about codeine metabolism in children.

Younger children are at especially high risk of accidental poisoning when they discover and take caregivers’ vitamins or drugs. Infants are also at risk of toxicity from drugs used by adults; toxicity can occur prenatally when they are exposed via placental transfer or postnatally when exposed through breast milk (numerous agents—see Breastfeeding : Drugs and Breastfeeding and see Table: Some Drugs Contraindicated for Breastfeeding Mothers) or skin contact with caregivers who have recently applied certain topical drugs (eg, scopolamine for motion sickness, malathion for lice, diphenhydramine for poison ivy).

Adverse effects, including death, have occurred in children receiving OTC cough and cold preparations containing some combination of an antihistamine, sympathomimetic decongestant, and the antitussive dextromethorphan. Current recommendations are that such products should not be given to children < 4 yr.

More Information

  • FDA 2016 status report Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act and Pediatric Research Equity Act

  • American Academy of Pediatrics' clinical report Codeine: Time to Say “No”

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
DELSYM
COMPRO
No US trade name
ACHROMYCIN V
ROCEPHIN
TRANSDERM SCOP
ANBESOL
XYLOCAINE
DURAMORPH PF, MS CONTIN
No US brand names
No US brand name
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