Cold Medicines- Still in the cowboy days

When I was in medical school, one of my professors told a story of when he was snowed in in a cabin in the woods, and one of his kids got a cough and runny nose.  He had no cold medicine with him, so he mixed his own like they did in the cowboy days- whisky, honey, and lemon.  “And by God,” he told us, “it worked!”

The science of treating coughs and colds has not come very far since those days.  There is still no medicine that science has shown helps much for coughs and runny noses from cold viruses.  When the drug companies come out with a “new” cold medicine, like they did most recently with Mucinex, it is just the same ineffective ingredients in a new package. 

Now, some people swear by their favorite cough medicine.  “Works every time!” they crow about their Robitussin or Dimetapp.  However, what is working is the Placebo effect, a psychological trick where if you believe in the medicine, it seems to work.  When you test the medicine in a blinded study, where you can’t tell the medicine from a dummy fluid, patients report no difference between the medicine and the dummy.  In 2007 scientists tested honey against dextromethorphan (the “best” of the cold remedy ingredients).  Guess who won- honey! 

Most prescription cough and cold medicines are no better.  Most of these are anti-allergy medicines, and if your cold is from a virus instead of an allergy, good luck.  The only prescription that has been shown to really help for coughs is codeine, and that really only for dry, hacky coughs.  And you can’t give codeine to a kid under 3 years-old.

So next time your child gets a cold, try the things I talk about in the “Cold in Babies” category.  Don’t ever smoke in the house.  And feel free to try your favorite grandma remedy- chicken soup, honey, lemon.  Just please leave out the whisky!