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Q
A Placebo Pill to Comfort Kids?

What do you think about this placebo pill for kids? You're supposed to give it to them instead of real medicine.

A
Answer (Published 12/1/2008)

The pill you're referring was devised by a Maryland mother when she realized that you can't buy placebos or sugar pills at the drug store. Her thinking, according to an article in The New York Times, was that a placebo could calm kids down by fooling them into thinking that they had been given medicine for minor ailments and injuries that upset them. The chewable tablet is being sold as a dietary supplement because it has no active ingredients and thus doesn't have to pass FDA muster as a drug.

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I think this is a terrible idea. First of all, I'm concerned that giving kids pills (placebo or not) for every real or imagined complaint will teach them that medication is the only effective solution for physical ills. In addition, if you give a child a placebo when he or she is really sick, you're just delaying proper treatment.

Secondly, I object to a pill being labeled as a "dietary supplement" when it has no dietary ingredients. Research suggests that placebos can work about one-third of the time when patients don't know that they're taking dummy pills and expect to feel better because they've been given what they think is medication. That leaves two-thirds of the time that sham pills don't work - and as physicians commenting on the introduction of the placebo for kids noted in the Times article, there's no way to predict who will respond and who won't.

Most of the time placebos are used in the context of scientific studies when neither patients nor doctors know who is getting the fake pill and who is getting the real drug. When parents give placebos to their kids, they know that the "treatment" is essentially a sugar pill.

Little kids love Band-Aids for boo-boos, but that's something they outgrow pretty quickly. Crying kids can be hard to handle, but when you know that nothing serious is wrong, parental hugs are pretty powerful and reassuring medicine.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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