The Formula For Cough Syrup Hasn’t Changed Dramatically In 50 Years: But Is It Doing Us Any Good?

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Cough Syrup Is Essentially The Same Formula As It Was 50 Years Ago, But Does It Do You Any Good Anyway?

We’ve all been there: that rasping, dry cough that just won’t go away. The tickle in the throat that threatens at any moment to burst out of your lungs and throat like a creature from the “Alien” movies. Those horrid coughs that seem to hang on, and on, never quite going away.

What to do?

Coughs send more people to the doctor than any other single symptom. Not only that, we spend billions of dollars a year on various suppressants, expectorants, and other supposedly “soothing, throat-coating” medications. Here’s the thing, though, there isn’t a lot they can actually do about a cough–neither the syrups nor the doctors.

The fact is, cough medicine is largely made up of the same ingredients as it was 50 years ago. Little has changed in the “science” of cough syrup–so should we keep using them? Do they have any effectiveness at all?

Not so much, according to some experts.

“We’ve never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with a cough,” said Norman Edelman, MD, senior scientific advisor at the American Lung Association in a WebMD interview. “But people are desperate to get some relief. They’re so convinced that they should work that they buy them anyway.”

That’s a pretty harsh, blanket judgment, which, no doubt many in the cough syrup industry would refute. So let’s take a look at the evidence.

A meta-study that looked at dozens of studies across the years evaluating the efficacy of over-the-counter drugs found no proof that they are in any way effective at helping your cough. This evaluation includes dextromethorphan, the well-known cough suppressant, and guaifenesin, which loosens up mucus in the airways.

That’s not to say that those drugs don’t do what they say they do; ample evidence exists that they suppress coughs and bring up mucus, respectively. But do they help make your cough go away? Not so much. Another survey of cough medicine studies found no evidence that they help with coughs caused by viruses.

Indeed, this evident lack of efficacy coupled with the small risk of serious side effects in children prompted the Food and Drug Administration in 2008 to recommend that toddlers and infants not be given cough syrup, even formulae designed for them. Now they only recommend cough syrup for children four and older. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says to hold off until a child is at least six years old.

That said, for adults and children over the age of six there is little chance of serious side effects, as long as you are aware of potential drug interactions and take appropriate precautions. Indeed, with a cough that is persistent or becoming painful, experts say a cough suppressant may be appropriate.

“I consider a cough suppressant in some patients who have a chronic cough that hasn’t responded to other treatments,” said John E. Heffner, MD, past president of the American Thoracic Society.

Just don’t be fooled: none of these medicines nor your doctor can make a cough go away.

Only time can do that.

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