Why You Should Think Twice Before Buying Cough Syrup

January 7th 2017

Got a bad cold and a cough that won't go away? You won't like this news.

There's "very little evidence" that cough syrup does anything to stop your cough, according to studies and data accumulated by Reactions, which produced a video on the topic.

At the very best, cough medicine offers the same result as a placebo.

cough syrupwhiskeyandtears/Flickr -

"Over the counter cough medicines for acute cough cannot be recommended, because there is no good evidence for their effectiveness," according to a 2002 study in the British Medical Journal.

"There is no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough," added the Cochran Library in a 2014 study. (Both studies relied on small samples.)

The effect of cough syrup is "mainly placebo," according to a 2006 study published in Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology and posted in the British Medical Journal.

"The major benefit of cough medicines for treatment of cough associated with common cold is related to the placebo effect, rather than the pharmacological effect of an active ingredient," Ron Eccles of the University of Cardiff's Common Cold Centre told researcher Roger Dobson.

What does cough syrup actually do?

In short, it makes you sleepy. And if you're asleep, you can't really cough.

So in a way, it works?

cough syrupfrankieleon/Flickr -

Cough syrup typically contains one of four main components, according to Reactions.

  • Dextromethorphan, which is supposed to block the cough reflex and is actually what is responsible for making you so sleepy.
  • Guaifenesin, which is supposed to help break up mucus in your lungs.
  • Ephedrine, which is supposed to decongest your sinuses.
  • Loratadine, which you may recognize by its brand name Claritin. It's supposed to ease swelling and cut down on mucus buildup.

What cough syrup is more likely to cure is your sleeplessness, not your cough.

But that doesn't mean you should disregard cough syrup directions.

NyquilAnita Hart/Flickr -

If you believe it helps you, it's totally your decision to take cough syrup, as long as you don't try operating heavy machinery after taking it (and, yes, that means driving).

But one thing you should never do is take more than recommended by your doctor. Too much cough syrup can cause dizziness, vomiting, breathing problems, and, yes, even death. That's because of dextromethorphan, the agent that makes you drowsy.

What can I do to get rid of my cough?

Reactions recommends the same remedies your mom and grandma have used for years: Drink lots of fluids, use a humidifier, and try some cough drops.

All of these have the effect of breaking up mucus, soothing your throat, and reducing your cough reflex, according to the Reactions video.

vintage cough dropsAndrew Filer/Flickr -

Ultimately, the best treatment is time.

"Most coughs will go away after a week or two without any treatment," Reactions said. "But if that cough lasts more than a few weeks, see your doctor."

[H/T LifeHacker]

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