All you want to do is help your feverish, drooling, cranky baby who’s teething and isn’t sleeping, to feel better. For years, parents have reached for teething products with a numbing agent called benzocaine to help relieve the pain that comes from teething. And even though products containing benzocaine have been used for decades, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a warning against using these products, saying benzocaine poses a serious risk to infants and children younger than 2 years old.
What Benzocaine Does
Simply put, benzocaine – in regards to its application in teething products – is a topical numbing agent used to reduce pain and discomfort in infants as teeth break through the gums. It works by blocking nerve signals in the body that tell the brain something hurts – it’s an over-the-counter anesthetic. It’s typically a short-lived fix to side effects that come with teething, as these topical treatments would often need to be reapplied multiple times per day. The FDA determined more than 10 years ago that use of teething products containing benzocaine could cause rare, but serious, side effects in infants and children, but most parents continued to use them. Reports of deaths and illnesses have not stopped, which is why the FDA has launched a new and concerted effort to have teething products containing benzocaine removed from pharmacy and grocery store shelves.
The Danger for Infants and Children
According to FDA research, use of teething products containing benzocaine can lead to a rare, but dangerous, blood condition called methemoglobinemia. This condition is caused by elevated levels of methemoglobin in the blood (which can come as a direct result of using teething products containing benzocaine) and can cause death. This can occur after only one use in some cases, as it causes the amount of oxygen carried throughout the body within the blood to be greatly reduced. Signs of methemoglobinemia include:
- Pale, gray, or blue colored skin, lips, or nail beds
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heart rate
If any of these occur after you’ve given your child a product containing benzocaine, get your child emergency medical treatment immediately.
Little to No Effectiveness
The FDA also found that these type of topical treatments, in addition to being dangerous, also proved to be ineffective because they wash out of the child’s mouth in a short period of time, rendering them nearly useless. The FDA has asked manufacturers to stop marketing these products for children. If companies do not comply with the request, the FDA indicated the issue is so serious, a regulatory action to remove the products from the market would be initiated.
What to Use Instead
Just because the “old standard” topical medication can’t be used anymore doesn’t mean all is lost. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests using a teething ring made of firm rubber (chilled in the fridge, but not frozen) for your baby to teethe on. They also recommended gently massaging your baby’s gums with a finger to relieve the pain and pressure that comes from getting their new teeth in.
Dr. Wright is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Summer Creek Clinic in Humble. Child obesity, newborn care, and ADHD are among her top clinical interests. Being around kids makes every day at work fun for her.