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Over-the-Counter Cough Medicines: Do They Really Work?

Cough SyrupGot a nagging cough? According to research, so do the 30 million other Americans that visit their doctor’s office annually for the same reason. Not only do people seek relief from doctors to quiet an annoying cough, but they spend billions of dollars every year on over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines. It’s clear that coughing is big business; what’s unclear is whether or not cough medicines really work.

One of the most common and troublesome symptoms of an upper respiratory infection is an acute (short-term) cough. OTC cough medicines are widely available and are either self-prescribed by patients themselves, or recommended by doctors as the initial course of treatment.

Even though coughs are one of the most common symptoms for which medical treatment is sought, effective cough treatment has evaded science for more than 50 years. A review of the literature reveals that:

  • Based on a 2010 review of clinical studies, there is no evidence to support using over-the-counter cough medicines, including cough suppressants and expectorants, for a cough.
  • Based on a 2006 survey conducted by the American College of Chest Physicians, there is no evidence to support that over-the-counter cough medicines relieve coughs associated with viruses, such as the common cold or flu.

WebMD says it’s important to understand that these studies haven’t proven that OTC cough medicines don’t work; they’ve just found no evidence to prove that they do.

Why are OTC Cough Medicines so Popular?

Cough suppressants – expectorants – decongestants – antihistamines – OTC cough medicines often contain a combination of any of the above. But if the evidence states that they have little effect in relieving a common cough, why are they so popular?

Experts say that when we’re desperate for relief, we find them reassuring. Being able to run to the drug store in the midst of a coughing crisis makes us feel more in control. When we start to feel better after a couple of days, we associate it with the cough medicine when in reality, the cough has probably run its course and the medicine has little, or nothing, to do with our getting better.

Are OTC Cough Medicines Safe?

OTC cough medicine should not be given to infants or young children; however, they are generally safe for older children and adults. Because they do contain pharmaceutical drugs, it’s always best to check with your doctor before taking an OTC cough medicine, especially if you have heart disease or high blood pressure.

Accidental overdose of cough medicine can occur when people use more than one brand of cough medicine without realizing that they both contain the same ingredients. What’s more, when a person feels like the first dose didn’t help, they may take multiple doses in an effort to feel better.  Taking more than the recommended dose of cough medicine, or more than one brand of cough medicine with the same ingredients, can be harmful.

Alternatives to OTC Cough Medicine

Still coughing? If you can’t find relief and/or don’t choose to use an OTC cough medicine, here are a few natural remedies that some people swear by:

  • Black tea with honey and lemon (do not give honey to a child under 1 year)
  • Honey cough syrup – mix pure honey with coconut oil and lemon juice
  • Thyme tea – steep two teaspoons in cup of boiling water and strain
  • Lemon pucker – suck on a lemon sprinkled with salt and pepper
  • Licorice root juice – steep one ounce licorice root or candy in boiling water for 24 hours

Don’t Forget: Coughing can be Good for You

Before you do everything in your power to stifle that irritating cough, remember: coughing is the body’s natural way of ridding the airways of foreign debris and excess mucus. Suppressing the cough reflex when the body is using it as a protective mechanism may do more harm than good.

WebMD recommends contacting your doctor if you develop a cough that lasts longer than 5 to 7 days, or if your cough is accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever or rash.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


R. Morgan Griffen. WebMD. Cough Medicine: Should You or Shouldn’t You? Reviewed January 3, 2012.


Image: Flickr, anitakhart, Nyquil! Finally, sweet sleep…

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