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Cough Medicine: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Get the facts on cough medicine.

Cough Medicine and Children

Because of a lack of good evidence that cold and cough medicines help -- and a very small risk of serious side effects -- the FDA stated in 2008 that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines. Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of OTC cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older.

The American Academy of Pediatrics went further, saying that there's no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6.

Unfortunately, a recent survey suggests that parents aren't listening to the warnings. In a nationwide poll, more than 60% of parents with children under age 2 said they have given their kids cold or cough medicine.

Why Do We Use Cough Medicine?

Why would these medicines be so popular if they don't work very well? People find them reassuring, says John E. Heffner, MD, a pulmonologist at the Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon and past president of the American Thoracic Society.

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 may be 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 any cold medicine.

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