FAIRFIELD — A state panel is warning of a “cluster” of infant deaths from antihistamine poisoning after finding more babies died from preventable overdoses in the past year than the panel had seen across over a decade.

Infants should never be given Benadryl or other antihistamines as sleep aids or to sedate them for a long plane or car ride, warned Kirsten Bechtel, pediatrician and co-chair of Connecticut’s Child Fatality Review Panel. It was the cause of death for 4-month-old Adam Seagull, who succumbed to diphenhydramine intoxication March 22, 2016 at an unlicensed daycare in Fairfield.

“We’ve not seen this phenomenon in the 15 years we’ve had this panel,” Bechtel said. She authored a May public health alert from the state’s Office of the Child Advocate that details at least four infant or toddler deaths in the past year have been caused by Benadryl or other antihistamine toxicity.

In an interview, Bechtel said the panel had previously only seen toxicity from the antihistamines’ main ingredient, diphenhydramine, cause one or two cases of child deaths since 2001.

She explained the only case when antihistamines should be given to children under a medical provider’s supervision and for a specific medical condition, such as severe eczema — a chronic skin condition — or an allergic reaction. Benadryl and other antihistamines’ labels warn against giving the drugs to children under two years old.

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Connecticut’s warning

The state Office of the Child Advocate and Connecticut Child Fatality Review Panel issued a May 2017 alert, “Public Health Alert: When is Benadryl Safe to Use With Children?”

Its summary warns: “Caregivers should never use Benadryl or other antihistamines in order to get their infants to be quiet or to sleep. Antihistamines like Benadryl should only be used when prescribed by a licensed medical provider. Benadryl is for the treatment of medical conditions like allergic reactions, seasonal allergies or itching from skin conditions like poison ivy or eczema.”

Citing privacy concerns, Bechtel couldn’t confirm whether Seagull’s death was among the cluster of recent cases. The Child Fatality Review Panel reviews all fatalities of children under 18 reported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut. Due to Seagull’s young age, an autopsy by the office was mandated under state law.

Bechtel called the Shelton infant’s case “a good reason why people shouldn’t do it.”

Among cases she confirmed the panel has reviewed was the death of an infant girl in early 2015. Her parents, of Brooklyn, Conn., were sentenced to more than a year of jail time each last week for fatally dosing the baby with Sleep Aid gel pills to get her to sleep, The Norwich Bulletin reported.

In Fairfield last March, 4-month-old Seagull, according to police, was found unresponsive after being put down for a nap at an Edgewood Road home hosting an unregistered daycare.

The daycare’s owner is currently awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to felony second-degree manslaughter and risk of injury to a child charges, as well as a misdemeanor charge of second-degree reckless endangerment. An autopsy found high levels of diphenhydramine in the infant’s blood and unabsorbed in his stomach.

While she denied she had the drug at her daycare, a police investigation showed Carol Cardillo had purchased 90 bottles of Benadryl at CVS between 2013 and 2016. Her purchase pattern allegedly matched when her daycare was open; no purchases were made during the summer months when she was closed for business.

Cardillo was arrested in September and released on a $250,000 bond. She remains free from custody as she awaits her next court date, June 20.

Bechtel said it is unknown how widespread the practice of using antihistamines for infant sleep or sedation is and that in the cases the review panel assessed, it was not always clear the dosage given, intent or frequency. Finding a dearth of scientifically rigorous studies on the topic, Bechtel and some of her colleagues are exploring the possibility of conducting a national survey to determine how often parents engage in the unsafe practice of using antihistamines for baby sleep and sedation.

Unless under direct direction of a medical professional for a particular reason, she reiterated, children should never be given the drugs. The cluster, Bechtel added, is one of “preventable” deaths.

lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16