Melatonin Poisonings in Children Soar Over Past Decade
Most ingestions were unintentional and in children younger than 5, with the biggest jump in numbers occurring during the pandemic.
By Ashley Antle
Melatonin overdoses in children are rising at an alarming rate, according to a new study where researchers found a 530% increase in the annual number of pediatric melatonin ingestions over the past 10 years. The number of children hospitalized as a result increased, too.
Most ingestions were unintentional and in children younger than 5, with the biggest jump in numbers occurring during the pandemic. Researchers believe the spike may be linked to an increase in melatonin use as a result of stress and anxiety-related sleep disturbances during the pandemic. Melatonin sales in 2020—the height of the pandemic—topped $821 million, up from $285 million in 2016.
It’s easy to see how it might happen. With schools and activities shuttered, kids had more time and opportunities at home to find and ingest what some may think is a harmless dietary supplement. But doctors say the misuse of any substance, even those that can be purchased over-the-counter, can be dangerous.
“Physicians often recommend melatonin which makes kids and parents think it is benign and, most of the time, it can be very helpful for those struggling with sleep,” said Artee Gandhi, M.D., medical director for pain management at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “However, large amounts of melatonin may cause drowsiness, agitation, nausea, headache and dizziness. Very large doses have effects on the reproductive system but there are no long-term studies about this in pediatrics.”
Melatonin is a hormone released by the brain in response to darkness. It signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. Short-term use of melatonin supplements may be helpful in cases of jet lag, sleep disorders and anxiety before and after surgery. The supplement can be purchased over-the-counter and comes in both pill and gummy form for adults and children.
Therein lies the danger. Gummies look and taste like candy, which can be particularly attractive to young children. Also, what’s listed on the label may not be what’s actually in the bottle.
“In the United States, melatonin is considered a dietary supplement so it is less strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than a prescription or over-the-counter drug would be,” Dr. Gandhi said. “Therefore, some melatonin supplements may not contain what’s listed on the product label.”
Symptoms of a melatonin overdose may include:
- Increased bedwetting or urination in the evening
About 83% of melatonin-ingestion cases reviewed in the study did not show any signs of distress. Those who did mostly reported symptoms related to the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and central nervous systems. More than 4,000 children were hospitalized, with as many as 287 requiring intensive care. Two children—a baby and a toddler—died in their home as a result of a melatonin overdose.
Medications and dietary supplements, whether prescription or over-the-counter, should always be kept out of sight and reach of children. Talk to your child’s pediatrician before giving them melatonin or any dietary supplement.
If you believe your child has unintentionally ingested melatonin, or taken too much, contact Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.