The Grapevine

How To Help Teething Babies: Benzocaine Medicines Unsafe, FDA Warns

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a stance against teething products containing benzocaine, urging parents to not use them on infants and children.

The agency asked manufacturers to stop the sale of teething products and include warnings for other over-the-counter oral health products which contain benzocaine, according to a statement released on May 23. 

What exactly does "teething" mean?

Teething refers to the process when babies start growing their first teeth, typically around the age of six months. Incisors are usually the first to appear, particularly the two bottom front teeth followed by the two top front teeth.

The process is painful for the baby since the teeth take time to cut through the gum. "Teething can technically occur before you even see the first tooth because of the pressure that’s created by the tooth pushing up against the gum," said Dr. Steven Lin, author of "The Dental Diet."

What can be done to ease the pain for a teething baby?

Massaging the gums with a clean finger or a gauze pad is the quickest way to provide some relief. Additionally, the baby can bite down on a cold washcloth or chilled teething ring. Remember not to use frozen teething rings as they may damage the gums.

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), it is never too early to start brushing baby gums with a soft infant toothbrush (or just a cloth and water) every day. "Parents should use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste to brush baby teeth twice daily as soon as they erupt and a soft, age-appropriate sized toothbrush," the AAPD website stated.

Parents can comfort the child and play with them to distract them from the pain. Drying their faces is recommended on a regular basis since babies are more likely to drool during the teething process, increasing the risk of skin irritation.

Why is the FDA warning people against using teething medicines?

The issued warning referred to benzocaine teething products for not being able to demonstrate sufficient benefits. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb also noted that benzocaine, which is an anesthetic, can pose a safety risk when used on children. It may lead to a life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia when oxygen in the blood dips to dangerously low levels.

"I have, for a while, cautioned against topical gels because of the danger, and babies are in the population at the highest risk for harm, and if you look at the risk versus benefit, it's not even all that helpful," said Dr. Lisa Thebner, a New York-based pediatrician. "Rubbing their gum or giving them something hard, like a teething ring, it will be a much bigger help."

The agency also posted a Youtube video titled "Do teething babies need medicine on their gums? No." The video warned parents about these risks, also urging them to avoid homeopathic teething products.