For parents, there is no greater impulse than the desire to make their children well when they are sick. And no illness has parents reaching for medicine more often than the common cold, a recent national survey found.
More than a third of 3-year-olds had been given an over-the-counter cough or cold drug in the month before the survey, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported earlier this fall.
The problem is that these preparations may do more harm than good. Even those made specially for children have never been tested for safety on them, and studies show not only that these drugs do not relieve children's cold symptoms but that they can make them worse, causing side effects like drowsiness.
But even as parents rely heavily on conventional over-the-counter preparations, they are also turning in unprecedented numbers to alternative medicine, especially homeopathy, according to pediatricians, pharmacists and drug company executives.
"There has been a steady increase of about 30 percent a year of parents coming in and asking our advice on treating coughs, colds and flu in their children," said Jerry Hickey, a pharmacist and owner of Hickey Chemists in Manhattan, the largest supplier of homeopathic drugs on the East Coast.
"They're coming to us because they're unhappy with conventional treatments."
Parents who might have shied away from homeopathy just a few years ago are finding it less forbidding now that mainstream drugstores like Walgreen's and Thrifty are stocking over-the-counter homeopathic concoctions along with the more familiar cough and cold medicines.
In addition, a few insurance companies, like Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska, have begun covering homeopathy and other kinds of alternative medicine, like acupuncture and naturopathy (the use of herbs, dietary changes and exercise to improve health), a sign that they are earning respect in the medical field.
Homeopathy is a technique that aims to stimulate the body's defenses against a specific illness or injury with minute amounts of agents -- usually extracts of plants, minerals or animal tissue -- that in large amounts produce the symptoms of that illness.
The market for homeopathic remedies, now about $100 million, has been growing by about 25 percent a year, reports the National Center for Homeopathy, a trade association in Alexandria, Va., and industry research shows that when people first try homeopathy it is usually for their children.
"The biggest reason is to find answers to problems like colds and ear infections that medical doctors don't have answers for," said Gina Casey, a spokeswoman for Boiron, a French company that sells homeopathic products in this country, including an over-the-counter line for children.
Whether homeopathy does have answers remains to be proved. Most studies involving homeopathic treatments have been criticized on scientific grounds. One exception was a report last spring in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle who found that homeopathic medicine speeded the recovery of infants with diarrhea in Nicaragua.
While not supporting the use of homeopathic remedies, some doctors believe that homeopathic and conventional over-the-counter cold drugs are on equal footing.
"Using homeopathic cold remedies is no worse than using conventional over-the-counter cold remedies for children," said Dr. Mark Widome, a pediatrician in Hershey, Pa., who is a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"I've had parents in my practice use them on their children and tell me that they work, and the products are by and large safe."
Dr. Widome and other doctors caution parents not to use homeopathic remedies to treat more serious conditions like ear infections.
"Children with ear infections need to be seen by a physician," Dr. Widome said. "If parents rely on remedies that haven't been scientifically studied, children are at risk of permanent hearing loss and damage to the ears."
Some pediatricians prescribe homeopathic medicines for ear infections, but the pediatrics academy does not recommend their use, because there is no scientific evidence that they are effective.
In a commentary accompanying the recent survey in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Anne Gadomski, a pediatrician at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y., wrote that in place of cough and cold medicines, parents should give their children "safe and simple" home remedies that "include tea with lemon and honey, chicken soup, hot broths, herbal teas and, in developing countries, guava juice, cinnamon concoctions and fish liver oil."
With regard to homeopathic medicines, she said in an interview: "There's no information on efficacy, but I don't know of any harm in using them for coughs and colds."
Dr. Gadomski said parents should keep in mind that there is no cure for the common cold and that it generally goes away on its own within a week, no matter which treatment is given.
But she warned that parents should not rely solely on home remedies or any over-the-counter preparations for treating newborn babies with colds or older children with more serious illnesses. "Babies less than 2 months old should be seen by a physician, since they can get really sick with a cold," she said.
With older children, parents should call the doctor if the child has a fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit, is lethargic or is in considerable pain.
"There is a real danger if a parent interprets symptoms wrong and uses a homeopathic treatment when a child needs an antibiotic," said Dr. Richard Solomon, a pediatrician at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, who prescribes homeopathic as well as conventional medications.
HOMEOPATHIC COLD REMEDIES
Here are some common cold remedies for children that are available without a prescription from pharmacies that carry homeopathic medicines. (Parents of infants should take their child to a doctor before seeking homeopathic remedies. Similarly, children of any age with a persistent cold should be taken to a doctor.)
* Cold Calm, a commercial mixture of homeopathic ingredients for use against the usual symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and mild cough.
* B and T Children's Cough and Bronchial Syrup, a commercial liquid for colds that include a bad cough.
* Cold and Flu, a commercial mixture for general cold symptoms.
* Aconitum napellus, an herb called "monk's hood" for mild fever and chills.
* Ferrum phosphoricum, a form of iron phosphate for use against higher fevers.
* Rhus toxicodendron, derived from poison ivy and used against muscle and joint aches.
* Kali bichromicum, a form of potassium dichromate for relief of mucus buildup.
* Allium cepa, derived from the common onion, for profuse watery and burning nasal discharge that is worse in a warm room.
SOURCES: Jerry Hickey, a pharmacist and owner of Hickey Chemists in New York City, and Dana Ullman, a board member of the National Center for Homeopathy and author of the book "Homeopathic Medicine for Children and Infants.