Medicinal Herbs Popular Choice for Babies and Kids Among WIC Clinic Clients

February 1, 2006

(University Park, Pa) — Nearly half of the low income, nutritionally-vulnerable Latino children surveyed by Penn State researchers in WIC clinics were treated with herbs by their caregivers for common ills such as diaper rash, colic, teething symptoms, stomachaches, coughs and colds.

Although herb use was higher among the Latinos (48.4 percent), over one-third (31.4 percent) of the non-Latino WIC clients surveyed also used medicinal herbs for childhood illness. The herbs most commonly used were those with relatively low risk for adverse effects, including aloe vera, chamomile, garlic, peppermint, lavender, cranberry, ginger, Echinacea and lemon.

The study is the first to report on herbal use by participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). WIC helps low-income women, infants and children up to age five by providing vouchers to purchase food, education about healthful eating and referrals to health-care providers.

Dr. Barbara Lohse, associate professor of nutritional sciences who led the study, says, “Nutrition professionals and WIC educators have hesitated to talk about herbs for children because they feared that it would encourage acceptance and, perhaps, cause people to start using them. Our study has shown that more WIC clients than we thought are already using them, mostly in moderate and appropriate ways. However, because some herbal use has the potential to do harm, we urge herbal education in WIC clinics.”

The study is detailed in the current (February) issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in a paper, “Survey of Herbal Use by Kansas and Wisconsin WIC Participants Reveals Moderate, Appropriate Use and Identifies Herbal Education Needs.”

Lohse began the study when she was an associate professor of food and nutrition at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and continued it when she joined the faculty at Kansas State University. Her co-authors are Jodi L. Stotts, Penn State research assistant and former instructor at Kansas State, and Jennifer R. Priebe, a clinical dietitian with San Luis Medical and Rehabilitation, Green Bay, Wis. At the time of the study, Priebe was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Menomonie, Wis.

The researchers surveyed 2,562 caregivers with children living in Kansas and Wisconsin who were attending a WIC clinic. Child herbal use was reported for 1,363 of the children ranging in age from 1 week to 17 years. The majority of the children treated with herbs were younger than age 5. The caregivers who participated in the survey consulted a variety of sources about the use of herbs to treat their children including family and friends, the news media, the Internet, medical doctors and other allied health professionals. However, family was, by far, the most popular source of information and was the only source for 46.9 percent of non-Latinos and 73.2 percent of Latinos.

The reasons cited by the caregivers for use of specific herbs varied. For example, aloe vera was used for burns, cuts, and rashes as well as gastrointestinal problems, asthma, colds, ear infections, fatigue and urinary symptoms.

Although most of the herbs that the participants reported giving to children were those with relatively low risk, the effects of long term use and interactions with prescription and over-the-counter medications are unknown. In addition, ten herbs with known safety issues, including St John's wort, kava and red clover, were also given to children and taken by the caregivers themselves.

The researchers write, “Although it may be tempting to say that, 'because little data exist on the safety of herbals during pregnancy, when breastfeeding, and in children, use of these products should be discouraged,' the reality is that herbals are widely used in these populations. Likewise, recent findings such as the inefficacy and adverse reactions from Echinacea use illustrate the need to provide an educational venue and to conduct educational research to formalize herbal education within the WIC clinic culture.”

The study was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program through a contract awarded by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

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Editors: Dr. Lohse is at lohseb@psu.edu or (814) 865-5169. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at (814) 865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.