Children, like adults, need good health care and healthy lifestyle habits to maintain good health. They also have unique needs and potential health concerns. Children are still developing and growing and there are many things that can impact that development. To ensure that children are healthy and grow into healthy adults, there are many factors to consider.
In terms of medications, children may react differently than adults. Dangerous drugs can impact children in unique ways, and drug companies have a history of marketing drugs to children that have not been approved for this age group. Parents and doctors alike need to be aware of medications that children should not use or that need to be monitored carefully.
Children develop from infancy through adolescence and pass through multiple stages that have been defined by experts. Not all children will follow these stages exactly, and some variation is normal. However, developmental delays can be a problem and a sign of a health condition. Monitoring physical, mental, social, and emotional development in a child is important for recognizing any delays and using interventions and treatments to help a child catch up or adapt to having some type of developmental disability.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15 percent of children between the ages of three and seventeen have some type of developmental disability. Some of the more common types include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, and vision or hearing impairment.
Each developmental disability is different and requires unique diagnosis and treatment. Many can be treated and the earlier interventions are used, the better the chances are that a child will benefit from them. Although there are treatments and interventions available, most of these disorders are permanent and cannot be reversed or cured. In spite of this fact, most children can live full and satisfying lives in spite of a disability with early diagnosis and intervention.
Leading Causes of Death in Children
Other health concerns for children can be seen in the most common causes of death as compiled by the CDC. Across all age groups, from one through the 20s, the most common cause of death for children is unintentional injuries, or in other words, accidents. For those between the ages of one to four, the most common fatal accident is drowning, while for older children it is motor vehicle accidents. Other common accidental fatalities in children are caused by firearms, poisoning, fires, and suffocation.
For children and teens, from age ten and up, the second leading cause of death is suicide. Other leading causes of death for children and adolescents that comprise the top ten include homicide, cancer, heart disease, infections, and congenital defects.
That suicide is the second leading cause of death for older children and teens highlights the importance of monitoring mental health in this age group. According to statistics, between birth and the age of 18, one in five children has a mental health condition that could be diagnosed. One in ten has a condition so serious that it impairs their functioning. Onset of mental illness can be much earlier than people realize, commonly as young as between age 7 and 11.
Mental health in childhood can impact a child’s future. Half of all lifelong cases of mental disorders first began in childhood. Most children never get assistance until already experiencing symptoms for several years. The consequences of untreated mental illness are serious. Half of children struggling with mental health will drop out of high school and 90 percent of children and teens who commit suicide had an underlying mental health condition.
Parents and other adults need to be aware of the signs of mental health conditions in children and teens and seek help as needed. That should begin with a pediatrician who knows the child and can make referrals to mental and behavioral health specialists. Therapy and medications can help children learn to cope and live with mental illness.
To promote healthy development of all types, children need good nutrition. Bad or inadequate nutrition can cause developmental problems, but can also cause or put children at risk for health problems that may extend into adulthood. These include obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and others. Good nutrition practices as a child sets someone up for lifelong good habits.
Experts recommend that children eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Half of each mean should consist of fruit and vegetables. Protein sources should be lean and low in saturated fat, like lean meats, eggs, nuts, and legumes. Children need more whole grains and fewer refined grains. Replace white rice with brown rice, white bread with whole wheat bread, and sugary cereals with whole grain cereals. Sugar, fast food, and junk food should be limited. Children should drink more water or milk and less soda or fruit drinks, which are high in sugar.
Food allergies can present a major road block to good nutrition in children and it is a growing problem as the number of food allergies in American children rises. Between 1997 and 2011, the number of food allergies rose by 50 percent in children. Many children will outgrow these allergies, but some will have them for life, and many have more than one food allergy. The eight most common food allergens are milk, soy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe. On the severe end of the spectrum a child may experience anaphylaxis, the swelling in the throat, mouth, and face that is fatal if not treated immediately. Children should be monitored carefully for food allergies tested if necessary. If a child is at risk for anaphylaxis, it is crucial to have epinephrine injectors on hand at all times and to know how to use them.
According to the CDC, between 2012 and 2014, nearly 15 percent of boys between the ages of five and seventeen had been diagnosed with ADHD. Just over six percent of girls in the same age group had received the diagnosis. Overall, about ten percent of all children were diagnosed with ADHD. This is clearly a common behavioral health issue for children in the U.S. Some experts have argued that numbers have increased simply because of awareness, while others say that too many children are misdiagnosed.
ADHD is considered a developmental disorder. It is characterized by an inability to focus or pay attention for a reasonable period of time, hyperactive behaviors, and impulsive behaviors. Having ADHD can cause a number of problems for a child, mainly academic and social. Being unable to focus makes learning difficult, while being impulsive and hyper can cause behavioral issues in school and can make it difficult for a child to fit in with peers. There are treatments for ADHD, which include both therapy and medication.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Another developmental disorder that is on the rise and that affects many children is autism. The severity and symptoms of autism come in a wide range from mild to severe and debilitating, which is why it is now referred to as a spectrum of disorders. The number of diagnoses of autism has consistently increased over the last two decades, and now stands at one in 68 children. Most experts agree that the increase is due to greater awareness.
Autism spectrum disorders are not fully understood, but are thought to be related to the development of the brain. If something disrupts brain development, a child may be on the spectrum. The disorder is characterized by repetitive behaviors, difficulty with communication, and difficulty with social interaction. Therapeutic and educational interventions can help children on the spectrum learn to live with the disorder, and very early interventions have the greatest impacts.
Dangerous Drugs for Children
The ways in which medications affect children are different from how they affect adults. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve drugs, they do so for children and adults separately. Some side effects may be a problem in children, but non-existent for adults, for instance. Some drugs may work in adults, but have no effects in children. Dosing is also important and is different for children and adults
Some of the most controversial drugs for children are those used to treat ADHD. Some people believe that children have been overmedicated for this condition, but for some children these drugs have been positive and life-changing. ADHD is treated with amphetamines, which are stimulants. Side effects of these can include difficulty sleeping, decreased appetite, and in rare cases tics and changes in personality.
One of the most commonly used ADHD stimulant is Adderall. Although rare, there have been reports of children dying suddenly while taking it. Additionally, drugs like Adderall can be habit-forming and are vulnerable to abuse. Teens abusing stimulants is a real problem that can cause serious side effects, including addiction.
Another class of drugs that can be harmful and even life-threatening for children is antidepressants. Most of these drugs now carry black box warnings required by the FDA to warn that children, teens, and adults in their 20s may suffer from suicidal thoughts and behaviors as a side effect. These medications are only supposed to be used in children and teens as a last resort for this reason, when therapy has not helped and the benefits outweigh the risks. Dangerous antidepressants for children include Paxil, Lexapro, Effexor, and others.
Antipsychotic medications may also pose serious risks for children. Side effects may include serious weight gain, sedation, and serious movement disorders. These include dystonia, slow, painful muscle contractions, and tardive dyskinesia, fast and involuntary muscle movements. One antipsychotic, Risperdal has even caused growth of breast tissue in young boys, a condition called gynecomastia that can be emotionally damaging and may require surgery.
Children and Off-Label Drug Marketing
When drugs are approved by the FDA, the agency outlines the specific uses and the populations that can use the drug. Doctors may use discretion in prescribing drugs for off-label uses, uses the FDA has not approved. However, drug companies are not allowed to market drugs off-label, for non-approved uses or to populations for which a drug has not been approved. Doing so is illegal and dangerous.
There is a long history of drug companies engaging in off-label marketing to children, with painful consequences. For instance, GlaxoSmithKline was found guilty of marketing antidepressants to children, knowing of the dangers it can cause, risks that are life-threatening. The company was forced to pay $3 billion in fines from charges brought by the Department of Justice.
Risperdal, which has caused breast growth in boys, was marketed off-label by Johnson & Johnson. The drug had not been approved for use in children when the company promoted it for that use and the result was billions in fines. Eli Lilly faced similar charges and paid fines over antipsychotic drugs marketed to children.
Children are vulnerable to different types of health problems than adults. They are still developing, both mentally and physically and have different health care needs. Among these are different reactions to drugs. It is important to understand how drugs affect children differently and to hold drug companies accountable when they do not take steps to keep children safe.