Placebos: Faking Your Kids' Meds

March 10, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Cold and flu season are in full swing! But what do you give your kids to relieve them of the sniffles and sneezes?Researchers at Penn State say over-the-counter cough syrups work no better than placebos, so why not try a sugar pill to help them? Here is one dad who fixes everything from tummy aches to fevers to colds with a shot full of nothing.

From a cough ... to a fever ... to much worse.

"When I was in pre-K, I got sick," five-year-old Eden Levin told Ivanhoe.

When do you give medication to kids, and when do you hold off?

"As a mom, I am for having my children feeling much better very quickly, so I do believe in medication," Karine Etieve, Eden's mom, said.

That's not how Karine's husband feels.

"Doctors don't believe in what I do," Barack Levin said.

Barack chooses placebos to help his children.

"The placebo effect, for me, is to give the kids the feeling that they're taking medication when they're not really taking anything," Barack explained.

"It looks a little like juice, but it's not a kinda juice," Eden said. "It's a medicine that's red."

One dose usually does it.

"I had no idea if it was going to work, and low and behold, in 10 minutes, he said, 'I feel much better," Barack said.

But some physicians believe parents could end up playing a dangerous game of deception. "It's not mind over matter," Tor Wager, Ph.D., a psychologist at Columbia University, told Ivanhoe. "It's dangerous for the relationship and the trust in medicine."

But at least one study shows that placebos can be effective even if the children know what they are. Seventy children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were asked to reduce their medications gradually by replacing some of the drugs with placebo pills. The children and their parents were explicitly told that these dose extender pills contained no drug. The results?

"In ADHD, you can reduce the dose of the real medicine, substitute placebo pills and get the same effect on ADHD," Walter Brown, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University and Tufts University School of Medicine, stated.

After three months, 80 percent of the children reported that the placebo had helped them. In another child's study of 83 kids with irritable bowel syndrome -- 57 percent felt better after placebo. Two percent felt worse.

As for this Barack, he says that as long as they don't hurt, he'd rather give his children a sugar pill than a dose of something they don't need.

"His body just tells him you just got something good from your dad, and it tells his body it's going to help him tolerate the pain and fever, and it should work," Barack said.

Barack does agree with doctors when it comes to putting the placebo away. He says that if his child's problem does not go away within a few hours, he will give them medication or take them to a doctor.

So many parents are turning to placebos that there is now a company called Efficacy Brands that sells chewable, cherry-flavored dextrose tablets. Obecalp stands for "placebo" spelled backwards. Fifty pills sell for $5.95. Because they contain no active drug, they are not FDA approved.

Walter A Brown, MD
Brown University/Tufts University School of Medicine
Tor Wager, PhD
Columbia University