Does Cough Medicine Work?

Coughs are the number one reason people visit doctors, and many of those people walk away with a bottle of cough medicine in hand. As far as medicines go, cough syrup doesn’t seem to bad. It’s sickly sweet and usually boasts flavours like cherry and strawberry. But flavours and fun aside, do cough medicines really work? 

How do cough medicines work? 

Coughs syrups work in a number of different ways depending on the formulation and what type of cough it’s designed for. Some types of cough syrup use antitussive drugs like DXM to block your cough reflexes so you just don’t cough. Other cough medicines rely on expectorant drugs that thin your mucus so it’s easier to expel or decongestants which narrow your blood vessels and open your airways. There are also cough medicines with antihistamines which reduce inflammation in the nose and throat. 

And while all these different types of cough medicines might ‘work’, studies show that they really perform no better than a placebo.

Does cough medicine work? 

OK, now you know the theory behind cough syrups – but do they work? Before you reach for that easy remedy, let’s listen to the arguments against cough medicine. 

Dr Abhi Verna, from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says that no studies exist which “suggest that cough syrup is of any benefit”. According to Dr Verna, there’s really no need for people to flock to their doctors or drink cough syrups – most coughs should just be ridden out. “For people who are in otherwise good health, a cough is effectively their body’s response to try and get rid of inflammation on their chest and upper airways”. Dr Verna says it’s only necessary to visit your doctor if your cough has persisted for more than a week. 

A recent review of clinical trials supports Verna’s argument, stating that there is no strong evidence that cough medicines actually help to relieve symptoms in adults. This means that there’s not even enough proof that cough syrups help symptoms either.

Why don’t cough medicines work? 

If we’re going by what Dr Verna says above, cough medicines don’t work because they don’t address the underlying issue behind a cough. They may suppress the urge to cough, or help release mucus, but don’t do much beyond that. So your cough could still persist until the original issue is resolved.

What can I use instead of cough medicine? 

There are many ways you can get rid of a cough naturally. A teaspoon of honey can work wonders for a cough, as well as a simple mixture of sugar and water (known as glycerol syrup). Other natural remedies for coughs include hot water with lemon, honey, and ginger and drinking warm fluids. 

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