Huge spike in US children being given melatonin, reports CDC

‘We at this time are not asserting that melatonin directly led to serious outcomes, including death,’ doctor says

Cases of melatonin overdoses in kids on the rise, study says

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The CDC has reported a spike in the ingestion of the sleep aid melatonin by children and doctors are urging parents to speak with a medical professional before giving the supplement to their offspring.

Between January 2012 and December of last year, the number of ingestions of melatonin by children reported to poison control centres in the US saw a spike of 530 per cent, according to the researchers. In total, 260,435 ingestions were reported.

The director of the Michigan Poison and Drug Information Center at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Dr Varun Vohra, told The Washington Post that “none of us really anticipated it being that large of a surge”.

The report issued by the CDC on 3 June cites the increase in both the popularity and the availability of melatonin, as well as the rise in sleep problems prompted by the pandemic and the additional time that children have been spending at home as possible factors in the spike.

The report is based on data reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System about those who are under the age of 19. The report states that 82.8 per cent of the children who took the sleep aid were asymptomatic, most of them were under the age of five and 94.3 per cent of the ingestions were unintentional.

The vast majority of the ingestions didn’t prompt a healthcare facility visit – 10.7 per cent of those who took the sleep aid saw a healthcare professional at a facility. Within that group, 14.7 per cent were hospitalized and one per cent – 287 children – were in need of intensive care. Two children died and five were put on ventilators.

“We at this time are not asserting that melatonin directly led to serious outcomes, including death,” Dr Vohra told the paper.

“We don’t want to set off alarm bells among parents, since the majority of melatonin ingestions are relatively benign and resolve without complications,” he added, noting that the intent of the research was to kick off a discussion and to describe the spike in ingestions among children.

The medical director of the Poison Control Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr Kevin Osterhoudt, told The Post that “it is unusual to see somebody become seriously ill after taking melatonin”.

“I think we need to look at the data more,” he added. “And we still have to define how big of a dose is dangerous, and if there are any people who might be at particular risk.”

Yale Pediatric Sleep Center Director Craig Canapari told the paper that, “I think that this is the sort of data, where you’re actually getting into hospitalizations and fatalities, that I think underlines the importance of this issue”.

Melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body. It’s produced in the pineal gland and controls the sleep-wake cycle. It’s a dietary supplement in the US and synthetic versions are available in a number of doses and can be consumed via pills, liquids, chewable tablets, as well as gummies, which researchers say could be appealing to children.

The supplement hasn’t been proven to help with chronic insomnia, but data supports its use for jetlag, and sleep problems prompted by shift work. It’s thought to be safe and non-habit forming.

According to Nielsen, sales of melatonin almost tripled between 2018 and 2022. Research done before the pandemic discovered that its use was increasing among both children and adults.

“The largest annual increase in pediatric melatonin ingestions coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the CDC report states.

“Children developmentally are naturally curious,” Dr Osterhoudt said. “The more that products are sold, and the more accessible they are in the home, the greater the likelihood that children will get into them.”

That it’s seen as a supplement and not a medication “may lead some parents to store it in different ways in their house than they might if they thought it was a medication,” he added.

Supplements also tend to not have childproof safety caps and the regulation for supplements by the Food and Drug Administration is not as extensive compared to medications.

Experts are urging parents not to give melatonin to a child under the age of three or without speaking to a medical professional. It’s also advised that the supplement be stored safely and that only products labelled USP Verified be bought.

“That means that that supplement manufacturer has gone through extra procedures to assure that their quality control is good,” Dr Osterhoudt toldThe Post. “You should also be aware of the phone number of America’s Poison Control Centers – 800-222-1222. There will be a nurse, a pharmacist or a doctor on the other end of the line that will be happy to talk to any family through the situation.”

Other measures can also be taken to solve sleep problems in children, such as the right bedtime and a routine before bed.

“If your child has sleep problems, it is absolutely worthy of talking about it with your pediatrician,” Dr Canapari told the paper.

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