Herbs are flying off the shelves, but when it comes to treating your children, beware: Most remedies have not undergone scientific studies. Their worth is usually based on informal use (not on controlled, scientific studies) and often their benefits are overrated and their potential risks underplayed. If you want the whole truth about herbal remedies, check out the new book The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines, by pharmacists Charles W. Fetrow and Juan R. Avila ($22, Springhouse Publishers). The book includes information on more than 300 herbs including common doses, side effects, interactions, and updates on herb research. The bottom line on common herbal remedies:
- Homemade ginger tea (made by slicing fresh ginger about 1/8-inch thick, pricking with a fork, and placing in hot water). More study is needed to see if it eases nausea and vomiting; too much ginger may lead to irregular heartbeat and drowsiness.
- Aloe to soothe a cut or burn. Applied topically, it's been shown to ease itching, inflammation, and pain. Should not be taken internally and could cause irritation or even delayed wound healing in some people.
- Chamomile (usually made into a tea by steeping one tablespoon in hot water) can have a sedating effect; it may also cause allergic reactions of the skin and eye and can make some medications less effective.
- Echinacea, when used in lozenges, as a tea, or mixed as an extract with water or juice, is touted as being able to shorten a cold. Scientific evidence is scant, however, and one study even found that people who use echinacea continuously have more upper respiratory infections than those who don't take the herb.
- Tea tree oil can treat skin problems such as acne and eczema. It's generally safe when used as an ingredient in shampoos, ointments, lotions, and soaps. It may cause sensitive-skin or allergic reactions in some people, and is usually not recommended for use in children.