Why Your Cough Syrup Doesn't Work

Still coughing even after you've taken medication? Here's why.

By Christa Sgobba

Ever wonder why you’re still hacking even after dousing yourself with cough meds? It might be because it’s likely your over-the-counter cough medicines don’t help at all, according to a new video from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions series.

Related: 8 Reasons You Can't Stop Coughing

“There is very little evidence that cough syrup is effective at treating your cough,” the scientists say in the video. That’s what they concluded after they analyzed all the available evidence, including systematic reviews that pulled data from multiple scientific studies. In fact, in one review of 19 studies, 15 showed either no benefit of OTC cough meds, or conflicting results with them.

Most OTC cough medicines contain the following ingredients: Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant found in meds like Delsym that work to block the cough reflex, guaifenesin, found in Mucinex, which loosens the mucus and makes it easier to cough up, ephedrine, like in Sudafed, which narrows your blood vessels to make you less congested, and antihistamines like loratadine, in meds such as Claritin, which reduce swelling in your throat and decrease mucus production.

Related: Sore Throat Causes And Throat Pain

Still, some of those ingredients can have sedating effects, so it’s possible the cough meds can help you fall asleep and stay asleep, the researchers say. And that can make you feel better than spending all night hacking. 

What might be more effective? The scientists say you can quiet your cough by following these tried-and-true tips: Drink lots of fluid, which thins out your mucus and reduces your cough reflex, and suck on cough drops, which can soothe throat irritation. 

Related: Do You Have A Sorethroat Or An Infection?


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