I am getting a lot of questions from patients related to teething, pain, and the routine use of products to alleviate the pain.  

The FDA recently issued a warning to parents who use OTC products like Oragel and Anbesol on their infant’s gums for relief of teething pain. These products come as both liquids and gels, and benzocaine is the active pain reducing ingredient.

It has now been found that excessive amounts of benzocaine may lead to a very rare condition called methemoglobinemia. (Hemoglobin is the molecule in the red blood cell that carries oxygen) . With methemoglobinemia there is a reduced amount of oxygen that is carried in the bloodstream which may lead to a bluish gray discoloration to the skin, shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate and fatigue and lethargy. Again, key word is rare.

Although the FDA did not withdraw these products from the market, they did recommend that they not be used in children under two, and then should be used “sparingly”. Unfortunately, the benzocaine containing products do not yet contain warning labels and some of my patients are still asking about using them.

I have never recommended using these products in the first place. I always wondered if they really helped a baby who was teething, as I am not sure you can tell when a baby is actually teething.  If you watch any infant over the age of 4 months, their hands are always in their mouths, and they are constantly drooling!  Does that mean they are getting teeth? Unlikely, as most babies don’t even cut their first tooth until about 6 months, so they have been drooling and putting anything they can in their mouths for months prior. The drooling and “gnawing” on their hands (and sometimes feet too) is rather a developmental milestone and not always a sign of teething.

My theory is let the baby chew on a teething ring, a frozen piece of a bagel (cut into quarters, good for gnawing but you need to throw it out when getting soft to avoid choking) or rub their gums with a cold washcloth if you think your child has discomfort.

The same thing goes for using acetaminophen or ibuprofen excessively. Some parents are giving a nightly dose during the “teething months/years” and this is too much medicine.  Children go through a lot of sleep changes and awakenings which tend to occur during suspected early teething times and many parents attribute nighttime awakenings to teething pain. They are not synonymous. Remember that temporal events are NOT always causal.

Babies will get teeth for many years to come and once the first several have broken the skin we don’t seem to pay as much attention anyway, right? I mean, who is going to worry about a child cutting their 2 year old molars, there are way too many other issues to deal with (tantrums, climbing, throwing food) than if their molars are erupting.

So, save your money and don’t buy teething products. Now even the FDA agrees!