I came across a news story from the UK from way back in 2004 (link below), which reports that the ingredients in over-the-counter cough syrups are no more effective than a placebo. The article reported on a study done at Penn State and was published in the Pediatrics journal. “UK experts said they would do no harm to those who took them – but said they also did not provide any benefit.”

The study looked at syrups that contained dextromethorphan (Robitussin, Coricidin, etc.) or Diphenhydramine (Diphen, Sominex, Nyquil) and compared the effects to a flavored syrup that contained no active ingredient. All three groups showed similar improvements in bothersome nature of cough, severity of cough and impact on the child’s sleep. Researchers note that they tested the cough syrup effect for just one night and say that it is possible continued use may have had an impact, but note that all the coughs got better without medicine in a few days.

But that’s not all. It seems that the cough syrups that contained the drugs might actually be worse for a child than we have thought. The article points out, “The children who received the dummy syrup had less frequent cough afterwards than those who received one of the active ingredients.” Something about the “real” cough syrup seems to be a worse choice for cough relief – the children coughed more after using the drugs.

Of course, there are people who have an argument with these findings. Perhaps their perception of the benefits is related to the side effects of both Diphenhydramine and Dextromethorphan – drowsiness. Mix those drugs with alcohol (so often an ingredient in cough syrups) and you have what might be called “a mini-Mickey Finn” – a knock-out potion. Of course, no caring parent would drug their child into unconsciousness, but it might be the case that those people who still support the use of cough syrups might do so because of the side effects – and not the effect on cough.

Cough syrups are legal and they contain drugs. First, the drugs probably do no good, and they may be harmful. If I still operated a community pharmacy today I would probably be thinking seriously about not selling cough syrups. The risks outweigh the perceived benefits. This is important news and parents should take note.

The soothing feeling that a person gets when swallowing any cough syrup can be duplicated with something as simple as a 50/50 mixture of honey and lemon. This is far less expensive, offers the same effect (according to this report), and doesn’t unnecessarily expose the child to another drug. Who knows, there might even be some nutritional benefit to taking a spoonful of natural honey and fresh lemon juice.

Today, in 2012, the vast majority of these non-prescription drugs are being ordered off the market by the U.S. FDA. If this is a good action – and I think it is – why has it taken our bureaucrats eight years to act?

Should we expect better?

To read the original article on the BBC, click here.