• The Best Medicine for Cough and Colds That Beats Over-the-Counter Drugs

    Researchers compiled evidence to ask if over-the-counter cough and cold medication were effective.
    by Kitty Elicay .
The Best Medicine for Cough and Colds That Beats Over-the-Counter Drugs
PHOTO BY iStock
  • With the Christmas season nearing, you might have noticed the weather getting cooler, and that means the season for coughs and colds has come, too. Children can contract the common cold as many as 8 to 12 times a year, especially young kids whose immune systems are still developing.

    But is there a particular kind of medicine that can help with the coughing, sneezing, and runny nose? We get this question a lot on our Facebook Messenger, but doctors will tell you that there’s no particular medication they can prescribe that will actually work. It’s a bummer you know that having a cough or cold can feel awful.

    In a new review by The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), researchers compiled evidence on whether various over-the-counter cough and cold medication were really effective for treating runny nose, congestion, and sneezing, and to see whether they can cause harm.

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    The research was done in part because parents are known to ask for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs during checkups with their kids in an effort to relieve their children’s misery. “Parents are always worried that something bad is happening, and they have to do something,” told Dr. Mieke van Driel, the first author of the study and head of the primary care clinical unit at the University of Queensland in Australia, to The New York Times.

    “Unfortunately, our research shows there’s very little evidence [that medication worked]. We were actually quite amazed by how little there was — hardly anything to be enthusiastic about.”

    This Filipino pediatrician agrees. “OTC meds tend to be abused by caregivers, giving rise to unwanted side effects,” says Dr. Faith Buenaventura-Alcazaren, a pediatrician who holds clinic at Marikina Doctors Hospital and Medical Center and Perpetual Succor Hospital and Maternity Marikina. “In general, these cough and cold preparations have not been proven safe.”

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    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously stated that young children with a cough or cold don’t need medication. These include decongestants (phenylephrine), antihistamines (chlorpheniramine maleate and others), cough suppressants (dextromethorphan) and cough expectorants (guaifenesin).

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has extended the recommendation to apply to children who are under 7 years old.

    “Research has shown these products offer little benefit to young children — and can have potentially serious side effects,” said the AAP. “Many cough and cold products for children have more than one ingredient, increasing the chance of accidental overdose if combined with another product.”

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    How to Relieve Cold and Cough Symptoms

    The common cold is a viral infection that cannot be treated with antibiotics, and there’s no cure for it, according to the FDA.

    “A cold is self-limited and most patients will get better on their own in a week or two without needing medications,” says FDA pediatrician Amy M. Taylor, M.D. “For older children, some OTC medicines can help relieve symptoms — but won’t change the natural course of the cold or make it go away faster.”

    Dr. Buenaventura-Alcazaren does not recommend giving cough and cold preps especially to infants 6 months old and below. “A lot of parents feel they need to give something for a cold or a cough. At best, a saline spray will help decongest and melt the mucus so it can be easily aspirated,” she says.

    Parents can help comfort their children by giving them plenty of fluids to keep them hydrated. Dr. Buenaventura-Alcazaren recommends humidifying the air, saline nebulization to help clear mucus, and elevating the head of the bed, which can relieve a stuffy nose. A warm bath can soothe aches and pains. You can also try giving kids warm soup — some research shows that the amino acid in it can help control congestion.

    For older kids, a little bit of honey might also help. A 2007 study showed that honey was more effective than dextromethorphan (a common cough suppressant) or no treatment. But if your babies are under a year old, never give them honey — it can lead to infant botulism, which can cause constipation, poor appetite, lethargy, and in more severe cases, even pneumonia and dehydration.

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    When to see a doctor for your child's cough or cold

    While coughs and colds go away on their own, it’s very important that parents know what symptoms to watch out for that may indicate something more serious is going on. Seek medical advice if your child’s symptoms last more than three weeks, if your child is getting worse instead of better, or is experiencing any of these symptoms:

    • severely sore throat
    • severe earache
    • difficulty in breathing
    • chest pain or coughing up bloodstained phlegm
    • increasing headache or facial or throat pain
    • swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck

    Infants who are breathing too fast, as well as high fevers at any age, are a cause for concern. Shaking, chills, and body aches may be a sign of influenza — which is treatable and can be prevented with the flu vaccine.

    “Proper patient education is important especially about the course of a viral illness,” reminds Dr. Buenaventura-Alcazaren. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about any of your concerns — getting a clearer picture of your child’s illness may be the thing to convince you that he won’t need any medication after all.

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