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Baby’s teething products can be harmful

June 18, 2012

There are some areas of parenting where everyone has an opinion. And, doesn’t it always happen that when you’re pushing your kid in the grocery cart, trying desperately to find the last item on your list so you can get the heck out of that store(!), that’s when someone stops you to share their little nuggets of parenting wisdom?

I’ve found that teething is one of those topics that people always want to talk about. When they see you with a drooling infant who’s trying to contort herself to gnaw a cold, metal shopping cart, everyone has a story about what they did for their kids or a secret remedy their grandmother taught them to ease teething pain.

Many times, though, I’ve politely nodded my head and smiled, knowing that as much as I appreciate their concern, I’m not going to follow their recommendations.

Like most moms, I feel anxious when I know my child is in pain; I want to find a way to relieve that discomfort. But, when it comes to teething remedies, there are many items available that can actually be harmful to a child.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to consumers regarding the safety of benzocaine products. This isn’t a first for these products, however, as safety concerns have been raised since 2006.

Benzocaine is a numbing ingredient often found in teething products under the brand names Anbesol, Orajel, Baby Orajel and Orabase and has been associated with a rare, but life-threatening condition known as methemoglobinemia. (Benzocaine is also found in a variety of other products in your local pharmacy that are marketed to treat sunburns, sore throats, toothaches and insect bites.)

Methemoglobinemia occurs when there’s an imbalance in the type of hemoglobin circulating in the blood. When this condition arises, blood cells can’t carry oxygen effectively throughout the body, and vital organs aren’t able to get the life-giving oxygen they need. The condition can be inherited, but more commonly it is associated with the use of certain medicines.

This latest warning comes after 19 cases of children affected by methemoglobinemia following the use of benzocaine gel were reported since 2006. Of those 19 children, 15 were under the age of 2 years. This suggests that children under the age of 2, the ones who are most often plagued by teething pain, may also be at greater risk for developing these complications.

Because of the difficulty parents may have in identifying the symptoms and the potential severity of the condition, the FDA has recommended that children under the age of 2 years should not be given benzocaine products for the relief of teething pain, unless specifically directed by their doctor.

To relieve teething pain, consider these options instead:

  • Give your child a teething ring cooled in the refrigerator
  • Massage their gums with your finger
  • Cool a clean washcloth in the refrigerator and allow your baby to chew on it
Parents often feel unsatisfied with these rather basic suggestions, and instead search for some type of medicine that will be their magical cure. Many turn to “natural” or homeopathic remedies to offer relief, but these products have not been proven to be safe or effective in children.


Although it is difficult to watch our children as they navigate this painful rite of passage, remember (as hard as it is!) that teething is a normal stage of development. It’s not an illness that necessarily needs treatment with medicine, but a normal part of your child’s growth that will resolve itself in time.

Provide relief safely where you can, and when you can’t, have patience. This, too, will pass.