Doctors often recommend over-the-counter cough medicine to
treat this frustrating symptom of the common cold. Cough medicine
sales are rising: In the United Kingdom (U.K.), sales rose
3% between 1998 and 1999. Believe it or not, this type of
has gained widespread support despite evidence that it really
works. The results of a recent study in the British Medical
Journal may surprise you.
To determine whether over-the-counter cough medicines are
effective for treating acute cough, the authors of the review
searched all studies in the U.K. involving adults with cough
for less than three weeks who were administered cough medicine.
All studies included placebo groups or no-medicine groups
for comparison to the group taking medicine. Fifteen studies
involving 2,000 individuals were assessed.
In nine (60%) of the studies, cough medication was deemed
"no better than placebo" for treating a cough. In the remaining
six studies, the positive results "were of questionable clinical
relevance." This was true for multiple forms of medication:
antihistamines, antitussives, expectorants, decongestants,
and combinations of these types of drugs.
Given the amount of over-the-counter cough medicines available,
one would think they possessed some effectiveness. This paper
counters such "conventional" thinking. Over-the-counter cough
medicines for acute cough may be ineffective for reducing
symptoms. Talk to your doctor about other options for treating
cough and cold symptoms, and also remember that when it comes
to sickness, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Schroeder K, Fahey T. Systematic review of randomised [sic]
controlled trials of over-the-counter cough medicines for
acute cough in adults. British Medical Journal 2002:324,
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