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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 said in 2008 that toddlers and babies shouldn’t get these products. Drug makers agreed to change the labeling of over-the-counter cough and cold remedies. Now they’re only recommended for children ages 4 and older.

The American Academy of Pediatrics went further. It says there's no reason parents should use them in children under 6.

But moms and dads might not be listening. In a nationwide poll, more than 60% of parents with children under age 2 said they've given their kids cold or cough medicine.

Why Do We Use These Meds?

People find them reassuring, says John E. Heffner, MD, past president of the American Thoracic Society.

When we’re sick with a cough -- or worse, when our children are sick -- we’ll do anything to relieve it. Knowing 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. But the cough just goes away on its own, Edelman says. The medicine has little to do with it.

Is It Safe for Adults?

Although experts agree that young children shouldn’t take cough medicine, they’re OK for most older children and adults. The odds of serious side effects are very small, Edelman says.

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

Heffner says you should also see your doctor if a cough lasts longer than 5 to 7 days, or comes with other symptoms like a fever or rash.

Don’t overuse the drugs in cough and cold medicines. This can happen accidentally. You could take more than one brand of cold and cough medicine without realizing that both contain the same ingredients. Or you might take multiple doses because the first didn't help. If one dose doesn't help, more won't get the job done either, Edelman says. Instead, you'll put yourself at risk of an overdose.

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