Is Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) Safe For Babies?

If your baby has a food allergy, is it safe to give them Benadryl to treat their allergic reaction? Today, we'll cover what parents need to know about Benadryl.

Benadryl is a type of over-the-counter medicine known as an antihistamine. It is used to relieve mild allergy symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, itchy throat, and rashes.

But is Benadryl a safe option for babies and young children? The answer is no – allergists don’t recommend giving Benadryl for allergic reactions. Today, we’ll cover why Benadryl is not safe for babies.

Benadryl doesn’t “target” allergy symptoms well enough

Benadryl’s active ingredient is an antihistamine called diphenhydramine. Antihistamines block the release of histamines, which can cause allergic reaction symptoms when a person is exposed to one of their allergens. So, antihistamines help relieve mild symptoms of allergies, like sneezing, a runny nose, itchiness and hives.

But even though antihistamines are the active ingredients in most oral allergy medicines, allergists don’t recommend using Benadryl to treat allergic reactions – especially not for babies and young children.

This is because the active ingredient in Benadryl, diphenhydramine, is an older “first generation” antihistamine. As Nationwide Children’s Hospital explains, this type of antihistamine  isn’t very “selective.” Even though it can help stop mild allergic reaction symptoms, it doesn’t just stop histamine. It also gets in the way of other pathways in the body that don’t need to be interfered with. For instance, it stops certain receptors in the brain, called H1 receptors, and this can make someone very drowsy and even sedated.  

Benadryl can cause dangerous side effects

As we mentioned above, notable side effects of Benadryl may include drowsiness and heavy sleepiness (sedation). 

Benadryl can also slow down reflexes and get in the way of someone’s motor skills. That’s why airline pilots aren’t allowed to fly a plane for 60 hours after taking Benadryl!

But the potential for undesirable side effects doesn’t stop there. 

Benadryl isn’t recommended for babies because it could potentially cause severe side effects, including rapid heart rate, convulsions, seizures, trouble breathing, or even sudden infant death. 

Other possible side effects of Benadryl in babies may include:

  • Restlessness or trouble sleeping
  • Irritability/agitation
  • Dizziness
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain

Newer, safer options are available

Today, there are newer “second generation” and “third generation” antihistamines that do a better job of targeting histamine, and that don’t cause unneeded side effects like drowsiness. 

These newer antihistamines also tend to work faster, and keep allergy symptoms at bay for much longer, than Benadryl does. And they’ve had to pass more rigorous safety and effectiveness tests than Benadryl had to.

Allergists recommend these newer antihistamines, like Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin, to treat mild allergic reactions instead of Benadryl.

In fact, in October 2019, the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSASI) warned that “first-generation” antihistamines (like Benadryl) are dangerous. They stated that newer antihistamine medicines should be recommended for mild allergic reactions instead of Benadryl, because the newer antihistamines are safer and have a lower chance of causing harmful side effects.

Key takeaways for parents

Don’t give baby Benadryl for any reason – not for allergies, and not for a cough or cold. And never use Benadryl to make your child sleepy. Even children’s Benadryl is not a good choice.

Newer generation allergy medicines, like Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin, are safer choices if baby has mild allergic reaction symptoms. (Mild allergic reaction symptoms include hives in one area of the body, swelling, itchiness and a runny nose.)

But only give your baby or young child an allergy medication if your allergist recommends it. Always follow the exact dosing, and use the exact type of medicine, that your allergist recommends for your child. 

Time to move on from Benadryl

If you’re surprised that Benadryl isn’t a recommended allergy treatment anymore, you’re not alone. Benadryl is so well-known as an allergy medicine that some pediatricians still recommend it for allergies (now outdated advice). 

Some pediatricians don’t know that other allergy medications are recommended instead of Benadryl, because the new guidance hasn’t reached them yet.

But allergists know that other medications can help stop mild allergy symptoms without the unneeded side effects, so it doesn’t make sense to use Benadryl.

If pediatricians ask an allergist about treating mild allergy symptoms, the allergist won’t recommend Benadryl anymore.

It is always preferred to use safer and more effective medications. First generation antihistamines [like Benadryl] are significantly more likely to cause side effects, including sedation, poor sleep quality, and poor cognitive performance.” – CSACI, for CTV News Canada

Even though Benadryl was a recommended allergy medicine for years, there are now other, better options to manage mild allergy symptoms, including Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. It’s time to move on from Benadryl. 

A Note About Severe Reactions and Anaphylaxis

Although newer-generation antihistamines (like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec) may help improve symptoms when your baby has a mild allergic reaction, these medications cannot stop severe allergic reactions or life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Epinephrine (an Epi-Pen) is the only medication that can stop anaphylaxis. This is why it’s important to have two Epi-Pens available for your food allergic child at all times, in case of an emergency.

As our Chief Allergist, Dr. Katie Marks-Cogan, explains, “Antihistamines will not stop anaphylaxis from happening – only epinephrine will. It’s an important thing to educate parents on, because many parents think that Zyrtec, Allegra, or Claritin will actually stop anaphylaxis, but that is not the case.”

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  If your infant has severe eczema, check with your infant’s healthcare provider before feeding foods containing ground peanuts.