Possible Role of Pseudoephedrine and Other Over-the-Counter Cold Medications in the Deaths of Very Young Children


Additional information and reprint requests:
William E. Wingert, Ph.D.
MEO Toxicology Laboratory
321 University Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19104
E-mail: william.wingert@phila.gov


ABSTRACT: The Philadelphia Medical Examiners Office has reported a series of 15 deaths between February 1999 and June 2005 of infants and toddlers 16 months and younger in which drugs commonly found in over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications were present. A total of 10 different drugs were detected: pseudoephedrine, dextromethorphan, acetaminophen, brompheniramine, carbinoxamine, chlorpheniramine, ethanol, doxylamine and the anticonvulsants, phenobarbital, and phenytoin. The drugs were confirmed and quantified by gas chromatography (GC)-mass spectrometry, with the exception of ethanol, which was analyzed by headspace GC and of phenobarbital and phenytoin that were quantified by GC with a nitrogen phosphorus detector. The most predominant drug was pseudoephedrine, which was found in all of the cases (blood concentration, n=14, range=0.10–17.0 mg/L, mean=3.34 mg/L) and was the sole drug detected in three cases. Acetaminophen was detected in blood from each of the five cases with sufficient sample. Other drugs (with frequency of detection) were dextromethorphan (five cases), carbinoxamine (four cases), chlorpheniramine (two cases) and brompheniramine, doxylamine, and ethanol (one case each). In the majority of the cases, toxicity from drugs found in easily available OTC medications was listed either as the direct cause of death or as a contributory factor. The manner of death was determined to be natural in only two of the cases. This postmortem study supports previous evidence that the administration of OTC cold medications to infants may, under some circumstances, be an unsafe practice and in some cases may even be fatal. The treating physicians and the general public need to be made more aware of the dangers of using OTC cold medications to treat very young children so that these types of tragedies might be avoided.