Gas drops, teething tablets, and pinkie straighteners

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

A carnival. A white-toothed, perfectly-haired Huckster stands on a platform in front of a crowd of parents.

The Huckster: “Step right up! I’ve got what every parent needs! A fix to one of The Most Serious problems your child has—right now!”

Boscoe’s mom: “There’s nothing wrong with my Boscoe! He’s the very picture of health!”

The Huckster: (looking down with concern at Boscoe, aged 2) “Hmmmm… yes, yes, I can see why you’d say that, Ma’am. But I can tell he’s headed for trouble! Just look at that pinkie!”

The Huckster reaches down, and picks up Boscoe, who continues to eat his cotton candy. His mouth is blue and sticky (the child, I mean.) The Huckster holds up Boscoe’s pinky finger to the crowd.

The Huckster: “Look!”

The crowd gasps, and inches forward.

 Boscoe’s mom looks apprehensive, but confused. She turns her head sideways.

Boscoe’s mom: “That’s his pinky. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

The Huckster: “It looks ok now, sure, but if you look at it from the side— Behold! It isn’t straight!”

Pandemonium ensues. The crowd erupts in fearful chatter. A woman faints. Sirens can be heard in the distance, and strobe lights from the nearby Tilt-a-whirl along with inexplicable gusts of smoke add to the mayhem. The Huckster seems to have grown taller, looming over the crowd.

 Boscoe continues to eat his cotton candy.

Boscoe’s mom, joined by several other onlookers, wails: “What can we do?”

The Huckster: “I have just the thing you need!”

From the depths of his topcoat The Huckster draws out a handful of devices, each of which looks like two pencils held together by rubber bands. The crowd pushes fistfuls of money at him, buying each for $19.95.

There is a sneaky and pervasive influence on health expectations, and I’ll bet most of us have fallen for it. Companies—The Hucksters—are trying to sell you things. And often, to sell them, they’ll first convince you that your child has a problem. Then, surprise, they’ll turn out to have the perfect thing to fix it.

Take “gas drops.” Usually made of simethecone (sold in common brands like Mylicon, and many others), these products “cure” your child of “gas.” But it’s just The Huckster at work. The truth is, farts do not hurt. Sure, newborns might be surprised and alarmed at the weird, unexpected feelings of stuff moving around in their little tummies, but that’s not pain, and it’s not anything that needs medicine. What it needs is love and support and reassurance, so babies learn that they don’t have to worry about these normal sensations. Gas and farts are a normal part of life. They are not a medical condition that needs a cure.

No medical study has ever shown that any gas remedy (including simethecone, but also gripe water and anything else you can find) actually helps alleviate any symptoms. It helps The Hucksters, but they certainly won’t help you or your child. If you’re using them, and they seem to work, it’s because symptoms we call “gas” always come and go. You give the gas drops when there are symptoms, and the symptoms improve—because they always improve. Go ahead and give the gas drops when there aren’t symptoms, and you’ll likely see that soon enough symptoms will start up again. Because they come and go, no matter what “medicine” you’re giving.

Another example: teething tablets. Study after study has shown that teething children have no consistent symptoms. The only thing teething causes is teeth. Sure, infants often have fussy times, or loose stools, or feel warmish—but they do that whether they’re getting teeth or not. It’s not the teeth, it’s the child. Teething is not a medical problem, but there sure are a lot of Hucksters who will tell you otherwise. And they’ll sell you something, too!

The vast majority of these nonsense cures are perfectly safe, and they’re actually not very expensive. So what’s the harm? The biggest problem I see is that parents get convinced that their children have many problems, and that every problem needs a cure. Most kids are very healthy, and few kids actually need any kind of medicine at all. That may sound weird, coming from a doctor, but honestly I will tell you that 90% of the “cures” given to our children (whether prescription, non-prescription, alternative medicine, voodoo magic beans, or stuff purchased at a carnival) are completely unnecessary and do nothing to help your child.

Don’t fall for The Huckster. Save your money, hug your child, and stay away from the drug store. If you do go to the carnival, take the rides, but don’t be taken for a ride. Tell The Huckster your child’s pinky is straight enough, and go get yourself a hot dog instead.

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5 Comments on “Gas drops, teething tablets, and pinkie straighteners”

  1. Oscar Says:

    All over the world is the same thing, of course. I read your post with a smile in my face. Not of satisfaction, but because we keep warning parents about commerce in modern medicine all day long. Sometimes we think we’ll lose the battle.
    But we insist!


  2. SadForMyCountry Says:

    One thing you forget….the placebo effect is very real and very strong. If a parent is giving a placebo that they think is going to work, that may give them a more positive attitude, which may help the baby feel better. Things such as gas drops & teething do work–not because of any medicine in them, but because of the placebo effect. There is a concern when a placebo is harmful (ie the teething tablets that were contaminated with lab), but assuming the placebo isn’t harmful and money isn’t an issue, parents aren’t going to be convinced their placebo isn’t working…because it is for them.


  3. SadForMyCountry Says:

    typo correction–contaminated with lead (not lab)


  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    SadForMyCountry makes a good point about placebo effects, which in a sense are certainly “real.” He or she is right that if parents feel that placebos work, they’ll be more calm and confident, and that might actually alleviate some of baby’s anxiety.

    Still: mom and dad’s worry about “gas” is entirely a myth, perpetuated in large part by the very people who are selling the placebo!


  5. Me Says:

    Farts can most definitely hurt!! I will testify to this. And yes excuse me simethicone does too work. I have had to take it after surgeries because air gets trapped in the body and it surely works. I farted for days. I’ve read other articles of yours and you seem like a absolute moron.


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