Cough Syrup Doesn’t Work; These Remedies Do

Jar of honey sitting next to a mug of tea with lemon

Ovidiu Minzat / EyeEm / Getty Images 

We spend billions of dollars on over-the-counter cough medicine, but numerous studies find it’s not effective. Try these tips instead.

With winter comes the cough. In New York City, subway cars sound like a Victorian sanitarium – and grimy hands aside, it’s the 50-MPH cough (and even faster sneezes) that give germs the joy ride of their lives as they travel to brand new bodies to infect. Yay, coughing! And it’s not just spreading germs that’s an issue; a persistent cough is annoying and distracting and can keep you, as well as the rest of your household, up all night.

So we spend billions of dollars on over-the-counter cough medicines that deliver a variety of multisyllabic chemicals to tame the hacking; yet alas, they don’t work, or so says science.

No Good Evidence for Over-The-Counter Cough Syrup

Researchers for the American Chemical Society’s weekly show, Reactions, took a look at systemic reviews and found there is very little evidence that cough syrup is effective at treating coughs, and that “carefully performed clinical trials show that these medications are generally no better than a placebo.” In one of the reviews they examined, of the 19 studies looked at, 15 showed no benefit or the results were conflicting. The other reviews all had similar conclusions, finding overall that there is “no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of over-the-counter medicines in acute cough.”

And not only that, but taking too large of a dose can have exceedingly detrimental effects. Like death. (Or like the thousands of children under 12 who go to the emergency room each year thanks to cough medicine overdose.) Although, it could be worse. For example, in the 1800s cough syrups contained things like morphine, alcohol, cannabis, chloroform and heroin – all of which probably didn’t help the cough, but likely nudged the cougher into a state of no longer caring.

The researchers also say that, aside from placebo effect, treatments employing Echinacea, vitamin C or zinc will likely not help either (though I’m not sure people actually use those specific remedies for cough itself).

Effective Cough Treatments

So what does work? These tricks from the granny playbook all get the green light:

• Drink plenty of fluid.
• Use a humidifier or take a steamy shower.
• Suck on cough drops; but sucking on any candy has the same effect. (Just watch the artificial ingredients and sugar; I’d look for a naturally sweetened lozenge or make your own.)
• Use honey and lemon – there is real live research showing that honey is efficacious for treating cough.
• Wait it out if you can; most coughs will go away after a week or two without treatment. (And if a cough persists for longer, see your doctor )

You can see more behind the research in the Reactions episode here:

View Article Sources
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  2. "How Fast Is a Sneeze Versus a Cough? Cover Your Mouth Either Way!.=" American Lung Association.

  3. "Dextromethorphan: What's the Problem?." National Capital Poison Center (NCPC).

  4. "Most accidental poisonings in children occur when medicine is NOT in its normal storage location."  Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP).

  5. Keefer, Philip and Norman Loayza, eds. Innocent Bystanders: Developing Countries and the War on Drugs. The World Bank. Washington, D.C., 2010.

  6. "Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  7. Goldman, Ran D. “Honey for Treatment of Cough in Children.” Canadian Family Physician Medecin De Famille Canadien, vol. 60, no. 12, Dec. 2014, pp. 1107–08, 1110.