“It’s like swallowing a spoonful of Drano. Sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you feeling hollow inside.” Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun
As a child, I learned two things about cough syrup, also known as ‘cough and cold medicine’. First, it tastes like poison (though not many living people know what poison tastes like). I still gag when I smell that artificial cherry flavor, which I associate with brands like Robitussin, NyQuil, and Alka Seltzer Cough and Cold. Second, cough syrup works, so drink it up.
Today, both of those facts are being challenged.
Let’s begin with the easy one. Cough syrup today tastes better than it did when I was young. Various brand names offer grape, strawberry, bubble gum, and even chocolate cough syrup, plus that awful cherry. Still, those flavors are masking some wretched ingredients which always have a strong taste.
Second, let’s examine the belief that cough syrup works, because research studies keep adding more evidence that it does not. Cough syrup can help people sleep more easily if they take enough to knock themselves out, but its utility ends there, and there are other ways to get that effect. When it comes to the active ingredients that are meant to soothe one’s throat and prevent coughing, a spoonful of honey or a cough drop (or any hard candy) works just as well.
Doctors discourage the use of cough syrup for children. It doesn’t work for adults either.
Dr. Richard Irwin, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and chairman of the cough guidelines committee for the American College of Chest Physicians, said that cough medicines contain combinations of drugs in low doses, which have never been proven to be effective. He added that “the best studies we have to date would suggest there’s not a lot of justification for using these medications because they haven’t been shown to work. ” Doctors discourage use of cough syrup, NBC News (full references below)
In 2008, government health services in both Canada and the United States warned parents not to give cough and cold medicine to young children. It is full of chemicals they do not need and it does not reduce the length or severity of cold symptoms. Moreover, one study examined instances of child mortality and found the deaths of 118 children in the U.S. in one year were attributable to the ingredients in cough and cold medicine. Use of over-the-counter cough and cold medications in children, Canadian Family Physician.
Cough medicine is supposed to work via its combination of drugs. One of these usually is an antitussive medication that blocks the body’s cough reflex. Most commonly, Dextromethorphan is used for this; you often will see it abbreviated as DM or DXM. It is used in combination with anti-histimines and sometimes a pain reliever (like Tylenol) as well. Unfortunately, the American Chemical Society just came out with a new video discussing the limits and dangers of DXM.
Also, cough and old medicine is widely abused as a drug. At high doses, DXM can create side effects such as nausea, vomiting, sweating and fever, rapid eye movements, memory loss, coma, and even death. In a recent year, 5,500 Americans went to hospital emergency rooms for treatment of DXM overdoses. Teen abuse of cough medicine, WebMD.
1 in 10 American teens has abused cough and cold medicine, which is viewed as a gateway drug. Florida recently banned the sale of cough and cold medicines to teens if they contain DXM. Some three million young Americans are abusing cold medicine each year. Some manufacturers have stopped making the codeine-based cold medicines due to widespread abuse and its inclusion in sugary “sizzurp” cocktails that can contain up to 25 times the normal dosage of codeine. Florida Bans Teens From Buying Cough Syrup, The Fix.
Cough medicines have no beneficial effect
“Good research shows that the active ingredients in cough syrups do absolutely nothing,” said Dr. Christian Jessen, a British physician. Essentially, one study after another is showing that cough syrups have the same effect as a placebo. Expensive cough medicines do NOTHING, say docs, Birmingham Mail. The only potential benefit is that some people sleep better after chugging cough syrup, but if this is the case, then why not chug some decent booze that you enjoy?
Drinking plenty of fluids is their top recommendation for those with coughs and sore throats. Chicken soup is good. So is honey, though honey should not be fed to infants under one year old due to the slight risk of botulism. Also, cough drops can help soothe sore throats. How Well DO Cough Syrups Work (If They Work At All)?, Lifehacker Australia.
Writing in the New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass noted that long, persistent coughs are always causes for concern among parents. People have a natural urge to do something. And yet, colds are viruses and cannot be treated with antibiotics. No matter what we do, they generally last for 7-10 days. And if we just accept that fact, rather than rushing to the nearest pharmacy or doctor’s office, then we can treat the patient with good old-fashioned remedies. “Parents can attempt to soothe a coughing child with a favorite book, a warm blanket, and a bowl of chicken soup.” The Cough That Doesn’t Go Away, New York Times.
Paul D’Aoust, Creative Commons, Flickr
Public Domain, Pixabay
A better drug
Bring on the honey, cough drops, and chicken soup. There are many natural cough syrups, too, relying on herbal or homeopathic ingredients. And many people have their own home remedies, from drinking ginger tea to putting drops of hydrogen peroxide in their ears. Are any of these effective? Some people swear by them, but they simply have not been studied on a wider scale.
Meanwhile, people in the United States alone continue to spend $9.5 billion on cough and cold medicines each year, a figure that climbs higher in the billions worldwide. Cough Syrup Does Not Really Help Cure Cough, International Business Times.
What a scam. I’d rather buy some raw honey from the guy at my local farmer’s market. And if I need a good rest, I’ll knock myself out with a shot of good brandy rather than some overpriced chemical stew.
Thumbnail: Mike Mozart, Creative Commons, Flickr