When we develop a nagging, painful cough, we’ll do just about whatever it takes to get it to stop. We’ll try anything:
But when we elect to address our symptoms with cough syrup, how do we know which is the best kind? With so many options out on the market, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
In this guide, I will provide a brief history of cough syrup, outline some of the different types of cough syrup, and attempt to answer the question: “what is the best cough syrup?”
A History of Cough Syrup
Near the beginning of the 20th century, doctors were battling against multiple respiratory foes. For instance, ailments such as tuberculosis and pneumonia were all too common, literally plaguing the world. Worse yet, patients suffered throughout the course of the disease.
Today, we would be horrified if someone suggested the following treatments for a cough. But our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of our current scientific knowledge. Also, we were willing to try just about anything to overcome these terrible illnesses.
Heroin as a Cough Treatment
Public health professionals in the late 1800s were desperate to find a treatment that would give patients some relief from the constant coughing that accompanied diseases of the era. In what was considered a major breakthrough, German scientists discovered a way to modify morphine for this purpose. Specific manipulation of morphine created a drug that worked as a cough suppressant. Scientists named this new drug “heroin”.
Nowadays, heroin wreaks havoc on our world. In 2019, the CDC reported nearly 14,000 deaths due to heroin overdoses. So, what started as a well-meaning attempt to relieve coughs led to one of the worst drug epidemics in the history of humankind.
Chloroform Cough Syrup
It may surprise the reader to know that chloroform was a fairly common ingredient in cough syrup until the late 1970s. This reprinted article from 1975 demonstrates the urgency with which the public wanted the government to remove the drug from circulation.
The FDA banned the use of chloroform in all products a year later, in 1976. This decision was primarily due to the documented cardiorespiratory issues associated with the drug.
Heroin, Chloroform, and Cannabis: Combination Cough Treatment
With the benefit of hindsight, we can probably say that “One Night” cough medicine was one of the worst creations of all time. A combination of heroin, chloroform, and cannabis; this drug cocktail would never make it to market today.
The drug was easy to procure throughout the late 1800s. But a common complaint of chloroform was the loss of consciousness and drowsiness. Unsurprisingly, this drug fell out of favor as we gained a deeper understanding of medicine and addiction.
Cough Medicines of Today
Obviously, cough syrups of the past left something to be desired. But are today’s formulas any better? Now, let’s take a look at the ingredients listed on the labels of today’s cough syrups.
Dextromethorphan or DXM is one of the most common active ingredients in cough medications on the market today. While the chemical is considered safe in appropriate doses, abuse of the substance can cause hallucinogenic symptoms.
Prescription cough medications may contain an ingredient known as codeine. Since this addictive substance is often abused, it is included in fewer medications these days.
Many Other Ingredients
If you have a bottle of cough syrup in your house right now, take a look at the label. These medicines contain both active and inactive ingredients, many of them being hard to pronounce. Still, these medicines have been rigorously studied and cleared for safe use in humans, so long as the dose indicated by the doctor or pharmacist is adhered to by the patient.
What is the Best Cough Syrup?
When it comes to treating coughs, most people really just want to know: “what is the best cough syrup or treatment for my symptoms?”
Types of Cough Medicines
Generally, common cough treatments fall into one of three major categories.
Expectorants, such as Mucinex, are prescribed in order to make coughs more productive. In other words, this drug turns thick mucus into more fluid excretions that can be removed more effectively by coughing.
One of the most common cough suppressants (also known as antitussives) is Robitussin. These medications are designed to prevent the cough reflex from occurring.
Topical treatments often contain substances that help to open airways and soothe coughs. One ubiquitous example of a topical cough treatment is Vicks Vaporub. Vicks contains menthol, eucalyptus, and camphor (among other ingredients). This topical cream is very often used to help children deal with cough and cold symptoms.
The Best Cough Syrup: And the Verdict is…
So, what is the best cough syrup? Further, what is the best method for the treatment of coughs?
As it turns out, we’ve still got some work to do to answer these questions. While there have been studies over the years such as:
- This systematic review, which looked at the best ways to manage a cough caused by a cold. This study found that, at the time, we had significant gaps in our knowledge of how best to manage cough symptoms. Years after this study was conducted, we are still relatively lacking in our ability to treat coughs.
- A study from 2011, which demonstrated significant benefit in the use of cough suppressants for symptomatic children.
- A review which showed the benefit of using expectorants for the treatment of chronic bronchitis.
There are plenty of ways to treat coughs, and science has yet to determine which way is best. Generally, a combination of keeping your immune system as strong as possible, managing your symptoms, and working closely with your doctor is the best advice for overcoming any type of illness or symptom.
Technology to Manage Coughs
A very recent development in the field of cough diagnosis and management is the use of technology such as smartphone apps.
In an age where respiratory health is referenced in every news article, we need to leverage every tool we have at our disposal. Staying healthy and managing our respiratory symptoms is going to be incredibly important moving forward.