I am a belligerent skeptic of over-the-counter cough and cold medications. I’ve been this way since well before I ever entertained the idea of being a doctor.
The late Michael Shannon (also known as the ‘dancing doctor‘) nicely summed up the problems with this group of medications:
‘The problem with cough and cold medications are two-fold.
One, they don’t work. We really have abundant scientific data now showing that these preparations do not reduce congestion and do not reduce cough in children who have colds.
Number two, they pose risks. Particularly in children under two, but even in older children, we have so much data now of serious side-effects occurring when parents give these products to young children.Mark Mycyk, March edition Chicago Toxcast
In addition to there being no well controlled scientific studies supporting the clinical efficacy of over-the-counter cough and cold preparations in children, they are potentially lethal. This is emphasized by a recent paper by Dart and colleagues [abstract]. There have been well over 100 identifiable cases of deaths in children from the use and misuse of cough and cold preparations. There have been deaths resulting from therapeutic uses (such as product misidentification or accidental repeated dosing by multipe care-givers) as well as from non-therapeutic uses (such as to make the child sleep, or worse…).
Parents, and doctors speaking to parents, should also remember that in some lung diseases the suppression of cough is actually harmful. However, we can all be reassured that, no matter how frustrating and tiring they may be, coughs and colds in children are commonly due to short-lived viral illnesses that can be adequately treated with fluids and humidity.
Man has an inborn craving for medicine… the desire to take medicine is one feature which distinguishes man, the animal, from his fellow creatures.William Osler, ‘Teaching and Thinking‘ in Aequanimitas
- Carr BC. Efficacy, abuse, and toxicity of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in the pediatric population. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2006 Apr;18(2):184-8.
- Dart RC et al. Pediatric fatalities associated with over the counter (nonprescription) cough and cold medications. Ann Emerg Med. 2009 Apr;53(4):411-7. [pubmed]
- Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the counter medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [cochrane.org]