FDA Bans Use of Codeine and Tramadol in Children

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tightening restrictions on the use of codeine and tramadol in young children.

The agency says the opioid medications carry "serious risks" for children under the age of 12, including slowed or difficult breathing and possibly even death. The FDA is also recommending against the use of codeine and tramadol by breastfeeding mothers due to possible harm to their infants.

Codeine is approved to treat mild pain and cough, while tramadol is used to treat moderate pain. Codeine is usually combined with other medicines, such as acetaminophen, in prescription pain medication, as well as in some over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold remedies. The FDA action only applies to prescription codeine.

"We know that some children who received codeine or tramadol have experienced life-threatening respiratory depression and death because they metabolize these medicines much faster than usual, casing dangerously high levels of active drug in their bodies," said Doug Throckmorton, MD, deputy director for regulatory programs, at the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

"This is especially concerning in children under 12 years of age and adolescents who are obese or have conditions that may increase the risk of breathing problems, like obstructive sleep apnea or lung disease. Respiratory depression can also occur in nursing babies, when mothers who are ultra-rapid metabolizers take these types of medicines and pass it along to their children through their breast milk."

In a review of adverse event reports from 1969 to 2015, the FDA said it identified 64 cases of serious breathing problems, including 24 deaths, with codeine-containing medicines in children younger than 18. The agency also identified nine cases of serious breathing problems, including three deaths, with the use of tramadol by children.

The majority of serious side effects with both codeine and tramadol occurred in children younger than 12, and some cases occurred after a single dose.

The FDA is requiring drug makers to add a tougher warning to the labels of codeine and tramadol products, alerting healthcare providers and parents that codeine should not be used to treat pain or cough and tramadol should not be used to treat pain in children younger than 12.

The new labeling also cautions against their use in adolescents between 12 and 18 who are obese or have conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea or severe lung disease. Breastfeeding mothers will also be warned not to use the medications.

The FDA said it is considering additional regulatory action for the OTC codeine products that are available in some states. It is also considering an FDA Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the role of prescription opioid cough-and-cold medicines, including codeine, to treat cough in children.

The agency did not recommend or suggest any alternatives to codeine and tramadol to treat childrens' cough or pain. OTC medicines such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also have risks and side effects.

"We understand that there are limited options when it comes to treating pain or cough in children, and that these changes may raise some questions for health care providers and parents. However, please know that our decision today was made based on the latest evidence and with this goal in mind: keeping our kids safe," said Throckmorton.

In 2015, the FDA approved the use of OxyContin in children ages 11 to 16  who are in severe pain, a move widely panned by addiction treatment activists who claimed kids would get easily hooked on the painkiller.