Cough Medicines: Which One’s Best?

I get a lot of requests for an over the counter cough suppressant suggestion or a prescription cough medicine for kids so they can sleep. Despite my attempts at educating the family about why I don’t recommend any cough medicines, many parents are upset leaving without a medicine.

I have collected numerous articles that show why I treat cough the way I do. Links are included throughout this blog. Click away to learn more!

First, a little background

Most cough medicines were studied in adults and the dosing for kids was calculated from the adult dosage.

Kids are not small adults. Their bodies handle illness and metabolize drugs differently.

But few studies have been done to show if medicines work at all, and if they do, what the best dose is for kids of various ages and sizes.

In 2008 the FDA stated that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines.

Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6 because of the risks without benefit.

Despite this, studies show that 60% of parents of children under 2 years have given a cough and cold medicine. Why? In my opinion, they are desperate to help their child and don’t think it is enough risk to not at least try.

Of course I would never recommend giving a child a spoonful of pills.

I know it’s frustrating when your child is up all night coughing. It’s frustrating when my kids and I are up all night coughing.

do you know what we do in my house?

  • Humidify the air of the bedroom (during the dry months)
  • Extra water to drink all day
  • Honey before bedtime in an herbal tea (No honey before 1 year of age!)
  • Encourage cough during the day to help clear the airways
  • Nasal rinse with saline (I love this, but my family is not so keen on it)
  • Sleep with water next to the bed to sip on all night long
  • Back rubs, hugs, kisses, & reminders that it will get better
  • Nap during the day as needed to catch up on lost sleep
  • Watch for signs of wheezing or distress

That’s about it for the cough.

If something hurts, we use a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. We use those only if something hurts, not just because and not for fever without discomfort.

Why don’t I give my family cough medicines?

Because they don’t work.

The OTC options:

Cochrane Review in 2007 was done to look at over the counter cough medicine effectiveness in both children and adults. These reviews look at many studies and analyze the data. Unfortunately there are very few studies, and many were of poor quality because they relied on patient report. In studies that included children, they found:

  • Antitussives were no more effective than placebo for kids. (one study) In adults codeine was no more effective than placebo. Two studies showed a benefit to dextromethorphan, but another study did not, so mixed results.
  • Expectorants had NO studies done in children. In adults guaifenesin compared to placebo did not show a statistically different response. 
  • Mucolytics more effective than placebo from day 4-10 in kids. (one study) In adults cough frequency was decreased on days 4 and 8 of the cough. (Note: I am not sure what OTC mucolytic was studied. I am only aware of pulmozyme and mucomyst, both used by prescription in children with cystic fibrosis.)
  • Antihistamine-decongestant combinations offered no benefit over placebo. (2 studies) One of two studies showed benefit in adults. The other did not.
  • Antihistamine shows no benefit over placebo. (one study) In adults antihistamines did not help either.

Another Cochrane Review in 2012 once again failed to show any real benefits of cough medicines, especially given the risks of side effects.

What about some specific studies on OTC medicines?

I cannot report them all here, but here’s a few:

study comparing dextromethorphan (the DM in many cough medicines), diphenhydramine (AKA Benadryl), and placebo in 2004 showed no difference in effectiveness of controlling cough for sleep. That means the placebo worked just as well as the medicines. Insomnia was more common in those who got dextromethorphan.

Does guaifenesin help? It is thought to thin mucus to help clear the airways. It does not stop the cough. Studies vary in effectiveness and are typically done in adults, but it may be helpful in children over 4 years of age. Do not use combination cough medicines though, for all the reasons above.

In 2007 honey was shown to be a more effective treatment than dextromethorphan or no treatment. Another study in 2012 showed benefit with 2 tsp of honey 30 minutes before bedtime. A side effect of honey? Cavities… Be sure to brush teeth after the honey!

What side effects and other problems are there from over the counter cough medicines?

As stated above, the dosages for children were extrapolated from studies in adults. Children metabolize differently, so the appropriate dosage is not known for children. Taking too much cold medicine can produce dangerous side effects, including shallow breathing and death.

Many cough medicines have more than one active ingredient. This can increase the risk of overdosing. It also contributes to excess medicines given for problems that are not present. For instance if there is a pain reliever plus cough suppressant, your child gets both medicines even if he only has pain or a cough. Always choose medicines with one active ingredient.

Accidentally giving a child a too much medicine can be easy to do. Parents might use two different brands of medicine at the same time, not realizing they contain the same ingredients. Or they can measure incorrectly with a spoon or due to a darkened room. Or one parent forgets to say when the medicine was given and the other parent gives another dose too soon.

And then there’s non-accidental overdose. There is significant abuse potential: One in 20 teens has used over the counter cough medicines to get high. Another great reason to keep them out of the house!

Side effects of cough medicines include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Impaired physical coordination
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness of fingers and toes
  • Disorientation
  • Death, especially in children under 2 years of age and those with too high of a dose

What about prescription cough suppressants?

In 1993 a study comparing dextromethorphan or codeine to placebo showed that neither was better than the placebo. Codeine belongs to a class of medications called opiate analgesics and to a class of medications called antitussives. When codeine is used to reduce coughing, it works by decreasing the activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing. It can make breathing too shallow in children. Codeine has several serious side effects which could be life threatening in children. Combination products with codeine and promethazine (AKA phenergan with codeine) should never be used in children.

The FDA has recommended against the use of cough medicines with codeine or hydrocodone for children for years, but just this month strengthened its position. New labels will now state that they aren’t for use in children under 18 years of age. The label will also warn about misuse adults and list the serious side effects and risks of these opioids.

In my opinion, why use it in older children and adults since it hasn’t been shown to work and we know there are risks?

What about antibiotics for the cough?

I’ve enjoyed following Dr. Christina Johns on Twitter for a lot of great advice like this!

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial causes of cough (such as some pneumonia or sinusitis) but antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which cause most coughs.

If your child has a cold, antibiotics won’t help.

Antibiotics won’t make the cough go away faster unless there is bacterial pneumonia.

They won’t prevent the cough from getting worse.

They carry risks.

In summary: over the counter and prescription cough suppressants and antibiotics shouldn’t be used for most coughs.

The sounds of coughing…

Parents often bring in kids with a cough but can’t describe what it sounds like. I sometimes get to hear it if they cough, but Murphy’s Law also says that a child who coughs often throughout the night and frequently during the day will have a 15 minute period of no cough at the exact time the doctor is in the exam room.

cough wheeze stridorIn all seriousness — coughs, regardless of the source — are usually worse at night, which means your doctor won’t usually get to hear the worst of it.

They can also change over time. For instance, croup often starts as a sudden barky cough that over days turns into a wet cough.

I often wish there was one place I could refer parents to so they could see what various coughs sound like, so I decided to put a list together. The internet is ripe with videos, but I have spent many hours watching videos that weren’t very helpful in order to find these. I’m sure I missed some of the best ones, so if you have one that you really like, please post in the comments below.

Regardless of how the cough sounds, if you’re worried about your child’s breathing or the sound of the cough, bring your child in to be seen.

Disclaimer: I have no ties to any of the videos below and am not responsible for any of the opinions or errors within them. Some are professionally done and others are videos parents uploaded. Some have advertisements which I do not endorse.

Croup

The initial seconds of this baby with croup stridor video show the typical croupy cough. At about 0:55 it shows the stridor that many kids with croup have. Stridor is a whistling sound as the baby breathes in (often confused with wheezing, which happens when you breathe out). It is common in croup and is caused by the swelling near the voice box. (Older kids and adults who get the same viruses that cause croup in younger kids often get laryngitis from the swelling near the voice box in a larger neck.)

This ER physician of TheEDExitVideo spends the first couple of minutes discussing what causes croup. At 2:27 sounds of stridor in an otherwise happy looking baby are shown. At 3:44 is a picture showing intercostal retractions (also seen with wheezing or other types of respiratory distress).

TheKidsDr also has a great informational video on croup.

Dry Cough

Dry cough can be from an irritation in the throat, asthma, acid reflux, or any common cold. It can also come from a habit cough (often seen after an illness and goes away with sleep only to return when awake).

If you’re sitting here reading this and not sick, make yourself cough. That’s what a dry cough sounds like.

Laryngomalacia

Laryngomalacia wasn’t on my original list because it isn’t from a virus or bacteria causing illness, but it is a cause of noisy breathing in infants. It is caused by floppy tissues near the voice box (i.e. larynx). Linden’s Laryngomalacia – 3 Months shows this breathing. It is often worst when baby is excited or fussy.

For more information on this (even a video of a scope into the airway), check out Children’s Hospital of Philidelphia’s Laryngomalacia page.

Pneumonia

The cough with pneumonia can sound like a wet cough or dry cough, so no specific videos are for this cause of cough.

The clues to pneumonia include a fever with cough, difficulty breathing between coughs, shallow breathing, shortness of breath with brief exertion, pain in the chest, rapid breathing, or vomiting after cough.

Pneumonia can be caused from viruses and bacteria and can range in severity. Walking pneumonia generally means that the person is not sick enough to require hospitalization.

Some pneumonias lead to severe difficulty breathing and require oxygen support.

Wet Cough

Wet cough can be from pneumonia or bronchitis, but also from postnasal drip with a common cold or allergies.

When kids “cough stuff up” it is usually the postnasal drip being coughed up, not mucus from the lungs coming up. The same is true if they “cough up blood”. This blood is usually from a bloody nose draining into the throat, not from lung tissue. (Note: bloody mucus can be from more serious causes and if your child has no signs of blood in the nose or is otherwise ill, he should be properly assessed by a physician.)

Wheezing

Wheezing is typical in asthma (and bronchiolitis). Many parents mistake the upper airway congestion sound that many kids make with postnasal drip as wheezing.

Wheezing can sound like a whistle as a child breathes out. Ethan’s wheezing shows a baby with noisy breathing without distress. This Wheezing – Lung Sounds Collection video has the sounds one would hear with a stethoscope, but if you put your ear against your child’s back (without a shirt) you might be able to hear them.

If you don’t hear wheezing, but your child is struggling to breathe, it does not mean there is no wheezing! Treat like you would if you hear the wheeze.

Asthma

Asthma Attack in a child starts with information on asthma, then at 1:50 video of what retractions look like.

Asthma attack shows the typical short breathing in phase with long exhale seen with an asthma attack. Also you can see the airway pulling in at the neck (retractions).

Bronchiolitis, often simply called RSV, but caused by many viruses

Bronchiolitis Cough, 3.5 months old shows a baby with a wet sounding cough, typical of bronchiolitis.

Bronchiolitis is a video from the ER physician Dr Oller. He reviews causes of bronchiolitis, how it’s spread, and how it affects the body. At 1:40 he discusses the natural progression of the simple cold into bronchiolitis. At 3:04 there is a picture of how we collect a nasal swab to help with diagnose of any viral illness.

Sick with Bronchilitis shows an infant with suprasternal retractions (sucking in at the base of the neck) and the typical cough associated with bronchiolitis. The man erroneously says “croupy”, see below for croup.

RSV and Infant Treatment shows the best treatment for babies with RSV (or any bronchitis): suctioning. Some babies need this deep suctioning in the doctor’s office or hospital. Others can get by with nasal aspirating at home. I’m not a fan of the bulb syringe for this. Here’s a good review of various aspirators.

Whooping Cough

Pertussis – Whooping Cough: A Family’s Story is an informational video on pertussis with the classic whooping cough in a child and pictures of a newborn with pertussis.

Silence the Sounds of Pertussis – Whooping Cough is a commercial for vaccinating, but it starts with the typical whooping cough sound.

Pertussis (whooping cough) shows a young infant with a cough from pertussis. Young infants do not always whoop, they stop breathing.

8 Year Old With Pertussis (Whooping Cough) shows a typical cough for an older child. Her positioning in front of the toilet shows that these kids often vomit from the force of the cough. The 2nd video from this same girl shows how normal and healthy kids can appear between episodes.

Final words…

Regardless of the sound of the cough or the ability to feel rattling in the chest, how kids are breathing is most important.

Coughs can often sound just awful but if the child is breathing comfortably and well appearing otherwise, it is probably not serious.

Conversely, some kids have a minimal cough but are suffering from difficulty breathing. If they are unable to talk and breathe or eat and breathe they should be seen. If the ribs suck in and out or the breathing is continuously more rapid than normal, they should be seen.

Don’t rely on the cough alone to decide how sick your child is. If they seem uncomfortable breathing it’s time for them to be evaluated.

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