Herbal Remedies in Children

Herbal remedies and herbal supplements in children involve using herbs (also called botanicals; e.g., flowers, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds, stems, roots) for their therapeutic properties. Herbal medicines can be used to treat common childhood conditions, such as colic, the common cold, influenza, and chickenpox. Some herbs can be used to help children sleep better or to reduce fever, stomach upset, irritability, and symptoms of teething.

Although herbal medicine and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) have been used in both children and adults for thousands of years, it is important for parents and caregivers to know that even supplements that are labeled "natural" can have harmful effects.

Herbal remedies are available in several forms, including pills, powders, tinctures, syrups, teas, and ointments. In the United States, herbal supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods and not as drugs. Therefore, herbs do not have to meet the same standards as over-the-counter or prescription medicines for safety and effectiveness.

Parents and caregivers should consult with the child's pediatrician before using any herbal supplement, especially if the child is taking other medications. Herbal medicines should only be used in children as directed by a qualified health care provider who has been trained in herbal medicine.

Common herbal remedies that are used in children include the following:

  • Chamomile (soothing, calming herb that can aid digestion and reduce nervousness)
  • Catnip (can help calm fussiness, aid digestion, and reduce teething pain and colic)
  • Echinacea (helps boost the immune system and may lessen the severity of cold or flu symptoms)
  • Fennel (improves digestion, reduces stomach upset, and can be used to treat colic)
  • Licorice (relieves congestion, sore throat, cough, and stomach upset)
  • Mullein flower (may reduce congestion and can be used to treat mild ear infections)
  • Nettle (can reduce allergy symptoms)

Children often are more vulnerable to harmful effects from medicines, including herbs and herbal remedies. Their nervous and immune systems are still developing and their bodies differ from adults in their ability to absorb, distribute, metabolize, and excrete drugs. Even when used as directed, herbal supplements sometimes can cause adverse effects.

Common side effects from herbal medicines include the following:

  • Anaphylaxis (allergic reaction that can lead to shock)
  • Eye infections (e.g., pinkeye [conjunctivitis])
  • Itchy, scratchy throat
  • Nasal congestion (rhinitis)
  • Sensitivity to light (photosensitivity)
  • Skin rash
  • Wheezing

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 08 Sep 2015