Why You Might Want to Stop Taking Cough Medicine
Cough medicine may do more harm than good for your cold. Here's what science says about the common treatment—and what to try instead.
Syda Productions/ShutterstockWhen you have a chest infection and are coughing nonstop, the first thing you’re likely to do is reach for the cough medicine. But hold on—it may actually do more harm than good.
Cough medicines are made of medications that have different uses, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Some are used to block the cough reflex. Others loosen and thin or decrease the amount of mucus in your lungs. The question is: Do they really help suppress and reduce the frequency of your cough?
First, it’s important to know the three types of cough, which are classified based on duration: an acute cough lasts less than three weeks, a subacute cough lasts between three to eight weeks, and a chronic cough lasts more than eight weeks, according to the CHEST Guideline and Expert Panel Report.
There is a wide variety of over-the-counter (OTC) products to choose from in the cold medicine aisle that claim to treat coughs, depending on the cause. Most of these products will fall into one of two categories: cough suppressants and expectorants. Despite their accessibility and availability, there is little evidence that these products do much good. In a 2014 study published in the Cochrane Database Systematic Review, which included 29 trials involving 4,835 people (both adults and children), researchers concluded there’s no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough. Earlier research in Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology even suggested the use of cough medicine is simply a placebo effect. (These are the 10 medical reasons for your persistent coughing.)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautions these products should not be used in children under the age of two years due to potentially serious side effects, “such as slowed breathing, which can be life-threatening, especially in infants and young children.” The agency notes that with a cold, “most children will get better on their own and may not need medicine.” (Here are 8 symptoms of whooping cough, a vaccine-preventable and potentially dangerous infection with pertussis bacteria.)
In the most recent guidelines for acute cough management, experts do not recommend the use of OTC cough and cold products for adults and children until they have been shown to make cough less severe or resolve sooner.
Coughing is actually “healthy” when you’re sick, as it helps force irritants out of the lungs. Clearing phlegm out of your lungs by coughing helps the body get rid of the infection. Typically, these coughs will go away in a few weeks as the infections clear up on their own, but see a doctor if you show these 7 signs of pneumonia.
In a 2015 survey published in Current Medical Research and Opinion, a total of 52 percent of respondents reported that cough/cold impacted their daily life from a fair amount to a lot, and an estimated 6o percent reported cough or nasal congestion as the symptoms that makes it most difficult to get to sleep.
So, what should you do if you need to suppress a cough to sleep or get through the workday? Try cough drops. Those drops (or any hard candy, really) will help boost your saliva production to soothe your throat, according to Michigan Medicine. Also, water will help because fluids thin out mucus to cut down the coughing. Try these other homemade cough remedies for even more help.
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options."
- CHEST: "Classification of Cough as a Symptom in Adults and Management Algorithms CHEST Guideline and Expert Panel Report"
- Cochrane Database Systematic Review: "Over-the-counter (OTC) medications for acute cough in children and adults in community settings"
- Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology: "Mechanisms of the placebo effect of sweet cough syrups"
- U.S. FDA: “When to Give Kids Medicine for Coughs and Colds”
- Mayo Clinic: "Cough."
- Current Medical Research and Opinion: "Impact of cough and common cold on productivity, absenteeism, and daily life in the United States: ACHOO Survey"
- University of Michigan Medicine: "Relieving a Cough"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cough Syrup, Cough Drops, Menthol Rub: What's Best?"