5 Calpol facts every parent should know

Paracetamol-based pain-relief syrup is a medicine-cupboard staple for parents everywhere – but there's some important safety info we all should be aware of ...

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We can’t imagine there’s a family medicine cabinet out there that doesn’t have a bottle of Calpol in it. And quite a few of us here at MFM HQ don’t really feel ‘covered for all possibilities’ if we take the kids out for the day without a couple of ‘just-in-case’ sachets of the stuff stowed in our changing bag, along with the spare nappies and wet wipes.

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So, it’s a bit of a worry when we see headlines – as we did towards the end of 2015 – warning that Calpol and other paracetamol-based child medicines – can be dangerous, and that we need might need to rethink how we use them or risk damaging our children’s health.

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After all, we’ve probably all done it: given our kids a dose of Calpol when they’re a bit grizzly or not quite themselves but not necessarily, categorically, properly ill. But, by doing this, are we unknowingly putting our children’s health at risk?

The short answer is almost certainly no. But, to help us all work out how to do our best for our children when they’re not well, we’ve taken a look behind the scary headlines to try to pinpoint the proper facts.

So, here are 5 Calpol facts (and other paracetamol-based child medicines) that every parent really needs to know…

1. It’s a brilliant medicine – as long you know why your child’s ill

First off, it has to be said that, when you know what’s ailing your child, and you know they’re in pain from, say, a sore throat or an earache, Calpol and other paracetamol-based medicines can do absolute wonders at making it all feel better. Even Professor Alastair Sutcliffe of University College London, the ‘top paediatrician’ mentioned in the headline above, told MFM he agrees that it’s a fab product to have handy.

But what Professor Sutcliffe also says is that it’s really important that we don’t just reach for the Calpol without finding out first what’s making our child ill. “If your child has a fever and is off food, and has not caught a known bug that’s going round,” he says, “then the first thing he or she needs is a diagnosis [from a healthcare professional] and not blind Calpol.”

2. It might not always be the best thing for a mild fever

Now, the jury’s still out on this one and more research needs to be done, but many child-health experts, including Professor Sutcliffe, now say that a low-grade fever is often a short-lived thing – and the body’s natural response to infection. And, if this is the case, giving a child with a mild fever Calpol – to help bring his or her temperature down – could actually mean the child stays ill for longer.

“Fever is a body defence to stop bugs breeding,” explains the professor, “so giving Calpol may extend the illness.” But, he adds, there needs to be more testing to confirm this.

Still, if your child has only a slight fever (37.5C to 38C) and doesn’t seem otherwise unwell, it might be better, as a first step, not to reach for the Calpol but to trying cooling things off by stripping him or her down. Then keep a close eye on your child’s temperature to make sure it’s not getting higher (if which case Calpol and/or a trip to the doctor might be in order). Check our guide to baby fevers for more helpful information

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3. Overuse can harm your child’s health in the long-term

And cue the scary headlines. The notion that we could be seriously damaging our children’s health came out in the news after Professor Sutcliffe was reported stating that, over time, chronic use of Calpol (or other paracetamol-based medicines) could lead to a child developing kidney, heart and liver damage.

And, yes, he did say this, but it’s important to put it into context. He said that this kind of serious health problem would only affect some children and, most importantly, it would generally only be triggered by chronic Calpol usage over time.

In other words, you’re extremely unlikely to damage your child’s kidneys, liver or heart with Calpol unless you’re dosing your child up with the stuff on a really regular basis for weeks on end.

4. It’s important to be careful about dosage

OK, so we all know we should follow the instructions on the bottle and only give our child the correct, age-appropriate dose of Calpol, repeated (if needed) at the correct recommended intervals in any 24 hours.

Where it can sometimes go wrong, though, is when you’re sharing childcare between relatives or childminders, and someone else gives your child a dose of Calpol, forgets to tell you and then you give another one.

“I have seen a child die,” Professor Sutcliffe tells us,”from being given double doses, accidentally, for 4 days.”

Pretty frightening, but, before you panic about an accidental extra dose you may have given, “it is not dangerous to have an extra dose,” stresses the professor, “provided you stick within the TOTAL dose recommendations for any 24-hour period.” 

Best of all, if you are sharing childcare between relatives or childminders, do try and make sure everyone’s keeping a record of how much medicine your child’s having and at when. Something as simple as securing a Post-it note to the Calpol bottle (with an elastic band) and asking people to note down on it the time and date of the dose, and how much they’ve given, can work really well.

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5. Paracetamol use in babies under 6 months is linked to child asthma (but the risk is still small)

A recent (2016) study, carried out by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the University of Oslo and the University of Bristol, highlighted a possible link between children under the age of 6 months taking paracetamol and an increased risk of developing child asthma.

While it was a large, well-regarded study, which does indeed seem to suggest a child given paracetamol in his or her first 6 months has a 27% to 29% increased risk of getting child asthma, it’s important to know that that the risk of your child getting asthma is low in the first place. So, as scary as though percentage increases may sound, they are actually a percentage of a very small number – meaning your child’s risk of developing asthma still remain pretty low.

(It may also be worth knowing that this study also looked at the increased risk of child asthma for babies whose mothers took paracetamol while they were pregnant – with similar results. The guidelines on pregnant women taking paracetamol have not changed; do take a look out our guidance on what medicines are OK to take when you’re pregnant.)

Anything else I need to know?

We’ll keep updating this article on Calpol facts every time there is any more research on children and paracetamol.

In the meantime, what do you do days when your child’s just grizzly but not really ill? We know that Capol isn’t the right answer but we do wish there was a Capol Light (or something) – a medicine with a similar look, texture and taste but without the paracetamol content, a kind of placebo Calpol we could give our kids as a comforter to make them feel a bit better when they’re under the weather but don’t really need medication. 

But what does Professor Sutcliffe think of that idea? “I would very much like to know what would be in this mixture!” he told us. “But, as long as it is not harmful, I would be sympathetic.” Oooh, watch this space…

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