The Common Cold Remedy Myth Cough Syrups Lozenges

Winter is the time when the common cold arrives. Many people see the arrival of the common cold as a reason to search for relief and often turn to such remedies as over-the-counter (OTC) cough syrups and lozenges. These products are available in abundance and are easy to acquire since they don’t require a prescription.

However, the wide array of cough preparations is part of a growing category of medications that many experts are starting to question. Many feel strongly that these are cold remedies that simply don’t work.

OTC Cold Remedies

Dextromethorphan (DXM) and gauifensin are among the ingredients most commonly used in leading OTC cough syrups and lozenges. DXM acts as a cough suppressant, while gauifensin loosens mucus in the lungs.

Manufacturers declare that both are safe, but specialists are quick to debate their effectiveness. Most opponents state that insufficient testing fails to back up the manufacturers’ claims. Others feel that most cold remedies do not contain enough of any ingredient to be of help. However, even at these low levels, the potential for misuse can lead to serious side effects.

Why Doctors Discourage the Use of Cold Remedies

Doctors discourage the use of cold syrups and cough drops for several reasons:

  • Current statistics reflect that most OTC medications have a placebo effect. Curative claims to the contrary, most cold remedies provide minimal relief in some cases.
  • Many cold syrups contain ingredients that are ineffective against the common cold. While these may help with allergies, manufacturers continue to include certain compounds that are proven to have no effect on the cold virus.
  • Taking a cough syrup or sucking on cough drops may mask other, more serious, symptoms. While coughs are common with a cold, those that last longer than two or three weeks may certainly be an indication of other illness. Even at the onset of a cough, pneumonia may be present. Delayed detection can lead to serious consequences and, at the very least, a longer recuperation.

Cough Syrups Are Potentially Harmful

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now more concerned than ever about cold remedies and the potential for overdosing. Because many existing ingredients have been in use for several decades, they have not received the microscopic reviews required of today’s drugs. In fact, many do not have statistical research to back up their effectiveness.

Cold medications marketed for infants and those under the age of 2 are receiving closer scrutiny. The FDA now recommends that no child younger than age 6 receive any type of cough syrup, and manufacturers have removed targeted drugs from the shelves. Taking this one step further, the American College of Chest Physicians currently supports the recommendation that no child under the age of 14 should be administered any type of cough medication.

Combining brands or abusing dosing instructions is also potentially harmful. Even adults who do not see immediate relief are guilty of over-consumption. Also, those who are receiving treatment for alcohol abuse should avoid some brands, as many contain alcohol.

Concerns about teen use of cough syrups involve the abuse of DXM. This ingredient creates a brief euphoria that drives many teens to purchase cold syrups through non-legal means.

Side Effects of OTC Cold Remedies

While abuse of OTC cold remedies occurs, side effects can develop even when these remedies are used at normal doses. Statistically, this is especially prevalent in younger children and seniors. Arrhythmias, stroke and even death, while rare, are just some of the reasons these drugs are no longer available for young children.

Teens who take excessive amounts of DXM may experience a range of side effects in the extreme, including:

  • brain damage
  • confusion
  • fever
  • hallucinations
  • seizures
  • vision impairment.

Zinc Lozenges and Their Effectiveness

Both zinc acetate and zinc glutonate are popular OTC cold remedies. Commonly available in lozenge form, they may provide some relief at certain dosages. No statistical proof exists that they are effective in children. Additionally, research shows that they do not help prevent a cold. Side effects include nausea and most people complain that zinc cold remedies taste bad.

Preventing Coughs the Natural Way

Having a productive cough, one that brings up mucus, is beneficial. It clears the lungs and helps in recovering from the common cold. A dry cough that is non-productive may only serve to disrupt sleep.

While most coughs will eventually go away, you can take measures for relief from dry coughing. Here are some tips:

  • Lean over a sink filled with hot water.
  • Take frequent, hot baths, inhaling the steam for at least 15 minutes.
  • Use a humidifier in the bedroom while sleeping.


Harris, Gardiner (2007). U.S. Reviewing Safety of Children’s Cough Drugs. Retrieved November 10, 2007, from the New York Times Web site: