Could Medicines Really be Making Your Child Hyperactive?

Some of the UK’s most popular brands of children’s medicine that are being sold over the counter every single day have been found to contain additives that are banned in food products because of a link to hyperactivity in children.

A new report following an investigation by campaign group Action on Additives says additives and a preservative that are “banned” in food and drink products can be found in 52 brands of medicines, with 19 brands containing as many as four of the additives. Some products were targeted for children as young as two months.

The colorings found in children’s medicines were identified as quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122) and Ponceau 4R (E124).

Six so-called additives and one preservative fall under a Food Standards Agency (FSA) voluntary ban that was imposed in 2008 after a study, known as the Southampton study, demonstrated a possible link between particular food additives and hyperactivity among children. As a result, the FSA highlighted the following as potential ADHD risks:

  • Sunset yellow FCF (E110)
  • Quinoline yellow (E104)
  • Carmoisine (E122)
  • Allura red (E129)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Ponceau 4R (E124)

To be clear, the research did not conclusively prove the link, but as a result, a voluntary ban was called for and many supermarkets and food manufacturers withdrew the products containing the additives and preservatives from supermarket shelves. EU regulations also mean that food and most drinks containing those synthetic colorings must carry a warning label that says “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Similarly, the additives and preservative are supposed to be banned in products aimed at infants under 36 months.

However, children’s medicines are not subject to the same kind of regulations and so manufacturers are free to use the additives as they so choose.

The additives were found in some of the leading brands of medicines sold in the UK, including Johnson and Johnson Calpol, and retailer Boot’s Paracetamol suspension.

It’s important to note that medicines are not designed to be, and should not be, consumed with the frequency or volume of food products. As such, a child’s exposure to the additives contained in medicines is very low and there are no studies to suggest any link between additives in medicines and behavioral problems in children.

This is something that both Boots and Johnson and Johnson have stressed in comments made to the media, with a spokesperson for Johnson and Johnson saying: “Carmoisine (E122) and sodium benzoate are contained in many medicines which have been approved for use by the MHRA in the UK.”

Indeed, the MHRA, the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, has said that while it would like manufacturers to remove the additives and preservative, it technically has no legal power to enforce a ban; as such it stresses that the quantities are unlikely to have an effect on a child’s behavior.

MHRA acting director of licensing, Dr Sui Ping Lam, is quoted as saying, “The quantities of additives, including colors, used in and consumed from medicines are small in comparison to foods. Any additives must be justified by the manufacturer before any new medicine is licensed. All the ingredients of a medicine must be shown in the patient information leaflet and some, including certain colorings, must also be shown on the label. We are aware that some additives can cause an unwanted reaction in a small number of people and we are continually monitoring their safety profile.”

The agency has also stressed that anyone who suspects an adverse reaction can report their case using the agency’s Yellow Card scheme, more details of which can be found here.

Action on Additives isn’t calling for a boycott of the products but instead is questioning why it is the additives, which aren’t necessary for the product to be effective, are still being used at all.

“We’re not advising parents not to buy these medicines,” Lizzie Vann Thrasher, Action on Additives spokesperson, is quoted by The Independent. “But if these additives have been taken out of food and drink for all children under 36 months, and there’s been a recommended withdrawal in food and drink for older children, why do we still have them in children’s medicines that can be given to children as young as two months old?”

However, medicines are given particular colors for a reason: it allows doctors to recognize certain medicines and what they might contain on sight, so speeding up diagnosis time should something go wrong. This is just one of a variety of uses for additives.

The question of whether these particular additives are needed in order to facilitate quick identification remains a salient one.

What Action Can a Parent Take?

First thing first: allow your child to keep taking their medicine. In the vast majority of cases, children are unlikely to be impacted by these additives and no one in this case is saying to cease treating a child.

If a parent suspects or knows their child has a sensitivity to one or more of the identified additives and would like to take a proactive step, not all medicines contain the additives and so switching products is an easy solution. Additives and preservatives will usually be listed on over the counter medicines and so can be reviewed before purchase.

Lastly, as to the question of whether medicines might be causing hyperactivity in children: that seems unlikely given the small amounts of additives used in the medicines.

Nevertheless, the report does provide important information about the additives present in certain children’s medicines and, as such, provides the valuable opportunity for parents to make informed decisions about whether to use the products or not.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Mary L.
Mary L4 years ago

At least this is coming out. Parents, it is to be hoped, will stop buying the stuff and that will cause a change.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


B J.
BJ J4 years ago

I would consider homeopathic first or in addition to.

A F.
Athena F4 years ago

If you haven't already, educate yourself about natropathic medicines. Many times people run to the drugs so quickly when they aren't even necessary. You might be surprised how many little sniffles, aches, pains and such can be relieved with common herbs, healthy food, lots of water, etc.

I'm not saying you shouldn't give your child medicine when they really need it. I'm just saying I know a lot of parents who run for the candy-colored cough syrup at the first little tickle of the throat. Maybe try some honey/garlic tea or something first and see how it goes? (NOT for babies under a year old, obviously) Warm apple juice can help kids get hydrated and can be soothing to the throat etc. And never discount the chicken (or vegetable) soup! ;)

Pharmaceutical companies should take a cue and start marketing more natural products. There is no reason they can't make money AND do the right thing.

Jocelyn Chouinard

all pharmaceuticals have serious side effects because the testing procedures are done by the scientists that work for the pharmaceutical companies, hence the findings are extremely biased. also, the goal of the pharmaceutical companies is not to cure any illness, only to temporarily decrease symptoms and keep unsuspecting citizens taking the "medications" forever - absolutely dangerous for the patients but very good for corporate profits.

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez4 years ago


j A4 years ago

scary stuff

Sonali G.
Sonali G4 years ago

Thank you for this article

Barbara V.
Barbara L4 years ago

#1 -- a "voluntary ban" is worthless and an oxymoron.
#2 -- all medications (over-the-counter and prescription) have potential "side" effects.
#3 -- all medications (OTC and Rx) have a potential for "rebound" effects, i.e., the medication does the opposite of what it is expected to do.
#4 -- all chemicals have a potential for creating an adverse reaction in an individual.

That said: regulation, regulation, regulation -- not voluntary but mandatory.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson4 years ago

Everything we consume has an affect on children and grownups; even pets.

We are all different; things affect us differently.

That is why medicine is called a "Practice"!