Mother of baby who nearly died from Bonjela dosage calls for more education

Bonjela is an orally applied medication commonly used to soothe gums of babies during teething.
Photo: 123RF

It’s the licorice taste of teething for toddlers, but for one mother, Bonjela almost cost her daughter her life.

Concerns about drug safety prompted MedSafe to restrict sales of Bonjela for infants.

However, Jessica*, says the restrictions don’t go far enough.

In 2019, a seemingly innocent dose of Bonjela to soothe her baby’s gums nearly killed her daughter.

“She was rushed to Starship Hospital and placed in an induced coma because her blood had become acidic from the active ingredient in Bojela, I was unaware at the time of the dangers posed,” said Jessica.

She used Bonjela for her daughter on the advice of her GP.

“She was hurting her teeth badly, we told the doctors we had given her Pamol, Neurofen and Bonjela. Their response was ‘It’s okay, it’s just Bonjela, keep giving her some’.”

It was advice she would regret taking.

“It’s an over-the-counter medicine, you can come in and buy 10 packs if you want. Nobody stopping you. Nobody asking questions. We were so lucky she didn’t die.”

Jessica said she felt both anger and disappointment following her child’s accidental overdose.

“A lot of parents just do what they think is best for their babies and when you hear them crying you want to help them. It’s appalling that you can tell your doctors that’s what I’m giving him and it always has such a detrimental effect.”

The infant version of the popular home drug would be restricted to pharmacies from May next year, although MedSafe Group director Chris James said the adult version would still be available with the word ‘teething’ removed.

“Bonjela will remain available in general sales for adults and older children as Bonjela is also commonly used for mouth ulcers,” James said.

The active ingredient in Bonjela is choline salicylate, which can be very harmful to babies if too much is given. It can cause salicylate poisoning.

“So we made this discussion following expert advice to help encourage parents who are buying Bonjela for an oral treatment such as teething to seek advice from their pharmacy.”

James said MedSafe strongly recommends people always follow dosing instructions.

“Bonjela is very effective and safe to use at recommended doses, there are no issues when the product is used as directed.”

However, Jessica wasn’t convinced there was enough warning.

“Not too many mums with a baby crying at two in the morning will Google the ingredients for their Bonjela to make sure everything is fine, but if there is a brochure wrapped around the tube, there are much better chance of people knowing about it.”

More education was crucial to prevent another mother from living out her nightmare, she said.

“I just want there to be a lot more information about what’s in Bonjela and the risks around it and to use it very, very sparingly.”

Jessica’s daughter is now four years old – healthy, happy and thriving.

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred your baby might be perfectly fine, but that’s what if, and as a parent you have to look at those and ifs and you want to know what your baby is taking.”

MedSafe says to rub a pea-sized amount of the gel on the affected area no more than every three hours and to use it no more than six times in 24 hours.

“You can overdose your baby by applying too much gel or using it too often.”

Karen Magrath, Whānau Āwhina Plunket’s senior clinical advisor, said she supports MedSafe’s reclassification.

“Teething can be a really upsetting time not just for pēpi but for the whole whānau. There are a number of things we recommend for pain relief other than teething gel.”

These included gently rubbing the gums with a clean finger or the back of a cold spoon, wrapping ice cubes in a clean washcloth and placing them on your baby’s cheek, giving your baby something to chew on such as a clean teeth or chilled fruit wrapped in muslin cloth, she says.

“There is little evidence that teething gels are effective and most gel is likely to be quickly removed through the tongue and saliva.”

Magrath said that if parents choose to use teething gel, they should only buy it from pharmacies.

“It’s very easy to unintentionally give babies too much teething gel.”

Signs of salicylate poisoning/Bonjela overdose are: vomiting, unusual drowsiness, fever and rapid breathing.

RNZ has contacted Reckitt Benckiser NZ, the makers of Bonjela, for comment.

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