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Cough Medicine: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Get the facts on cough medicine.

Why Do We Use Cough Medicine? continued...

When we’re sick with a cough -- or worse, when our children are sick -- we’re desperate to do something, anything, to relieve it. Knowing that there’s a medicine we can use makes us feel more in control. People may also start feeling better a few days after taking a cough medicine, so they assume it's working. In fact, Edelman says, the cough may just going away on its own. The medicine may have little to do with it.

Many assume that the FDA wouldn't allow companies to sell drugs that don't have good evidence. That's true for new drugs, Heffner says. But the FDA doesn't routinely reevaluate drugs that were approved long ago. Since cough medicines have been around for decades, they're unlikely to go away.

Are Cough Medicines Safe for Adults?

Although experts agree that young children should not take cough medicine, they're safe for older children and adults. The odds of serious side effects are very small, Edelman says.

That said, anyone with a medical condition -- such as heart disease or high blood pressure -- should check with a doctor before using a cold medicine.

Heffner says that anyone with a cough that lasts longer than five to seven days -- or is accompanied by other symptoms, like a fever or rash -- should also see a doctor. Self-treating a lingering cough is not a good idea.

People should be careful not to overuse the drugs in cough and cold medicines. This can happen accidentally. A person may take more than one brand of cold and cough medicine without realizing that both contain the same ingredients.  Or a person may take multiple doses because the first dose didn't help. Edelman cautions: If one dose doesn't help, more doses won't help. Instead, you'll put yourself at risk of an overdose.

Should You Use Cough Medicine?

Experts say that although cough medicine may not help a lot, there's little harm in older children and adults using cough medicine.

There may be certain situations in which a doctor would suggest it, Heffner says. "I consider a cough suppressant in some patients who have a chronic cough that hasn't responded to other treatments," he tells WebMD.

If you're wary of using OTC cough treatments but want to try something, consider a little honey in warm tea. Some studies have found that honey is a mildly effective treatment for cough. Honey is not safe for children under age 1, however.

There is one last thing to consider before deciding whether to use cough medicine. Coughing can be good for you. Our bodies cough to clear out excess mucus and other irritants, Edelman says.

Of course, that knowledge is probably small comfort when you’re up in the middle of the night with a miserable, hacking cough that won't stop. A lot of us would really prefer a few teaspoons of cough syrup -- whether it will really help us or not.

Reviewed on January 03, 2012

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