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Why cough syrups might not be safe for your children

Baby Care - By Dr Ombeva Malande
Cough Syrup Photo:Courtesy

Hi Dr Ombeva,

Is it safe to give cough syrups to children under the age of 1?


Dear Florence,

Coughs cause a lot of misery. We all get desperate for an effective cough treatment when we catch a cold. The problem is we do not always seem to have one.

A 2010 review of studies found no evidence to support using common over-the-counter drugs for coughs. These include cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, or expectorants such as guaifenesin, which are supposed to loosen up mucus in the airways.

In 2006, the American College of Chest Physicians surveyed a number of cough medicine studies from the last few decades. It found no evidence that these medicines help people with common coughs caused by viruses, besides; these medicines are often not studied in children, but are often studied in adults, with results then applied to children.

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We don’t know if adults and children will react to these medicines in the same way, and even among adults, the evidence is weak that cough and cold medicines help. It is, however, important to understand that these studies have not proven that cough medicines do not work, but rather they have just found no proof that they do. It’s always possible that further studies could show that they help.

What we know is that cough suppressants aren’t recommended for children younger than two and won’t cure a child’s cold or make it go away any sooner. These medications also have potentially serious side effects, including rapid heart rate and convulsions.

If you give cough or cold medicines to an older child, carefully follow the label directions. Don’t give your child two medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine, decongestant or pain reliever. Ensure you get advice from your child’s doctor before you give the syrups to a child, because antibiotics may be necessary for a child with infection, and you may confuse them for cough syrup. Let the doctor make this decision for you.

However, be careful with antibiotics since they have no effect on viruses, which cause colds. If your child has a cold, antibiotics won’t help. It’s also important to remember the more your child uses antibiotics, the more likely he or she is to get sick with an antibiotic-resistant infection in the future.

— Dr Ombeva Malande is a paediatrics and child health expert

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