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Do Cough Medicines Work in Kids?

Study Shows Over-the-Counter Varieties Are No More Effective Than Placebo

Potential for Abuse

Over the past few years, over-the-counter cough medications containing dextromethorphan have become popular drugs for abuse among teens. These medications, when administered to children, have been associated with irritability,restlessness, lethargy, hallucination, and hypertension. Scores of overdoses and at least five deaths have been attributed to the medications, and they are often combined with alcohol or other recreational drugs.

Paul says the potential for abuse is another reason to question the widespread availability of over-the-counter cough medications.

Nashville pediatrician Veronica Gunn, MD, who has also studied the use of over-the-counter cough medications in children, says it is understandable that parents want to try something to relieve their child's cough.

"I try to be empathetic because when a child is coughing all night, nobody sleeps," she says. "I am certainly not a proponent of giving cough and cold medications, but I tell my parents that if they are desperate to try something I will support them."

In these cases, Gunn recommends choosing an over-the-counter medication with a single active ingredient instead of one with multiple ingredients marketed for the relief of a host of cold-related symptoms. And she recommends limiting use of the medications to no more than three days.

"One child I wrote about suffered heart damage after being on a cough and cold drug for just over a week," she says. "The damage was repaired over time, but that is not something you want to expose your children to for no good reason."

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