Eating Cough Drops Like Candy Will Worsen Your Cough

Eating Cough Drops Like Candy Will Worsen Your Cough 
Eating Cough Drops Like Candy Will Worsen Your Cough 
Suzanne B. Robotti
Suzanne B. Robotti Executive Director
If you are using cough drops to soothe a nagging cough, stop right now! They are doing you more harm than good. The more lozenges you take, the longer your cough will last. Cough drops just beget more coughing.Is your cough lingering for days, even weeks, after the congestion and exhaustion of a cold or flu is gone? If you are using cough drops to soothe and calm the coughing, you may have found the culprit of the long-lasting cough.Dr. Bob Mead noticed that patients who came to his office to address a lingering cough most often told him they weren’t taking any medicine for it… as they popped a cough drop. Some patients were taking 20 drops a day! On a hunch, he told them to stop the cough drops and see what happened. Most often, the cough was gone in a day or two.Mead asked the Wisconsin Research and Education Network (WREN) to run a study. Their research, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2018, confirmed Mead’s insight. WREN studied more than 500 patients in rural, suburban, and urban Wisconsin clinics.

Are Cough Drops Good for You?

Most cough products use menthol, a mint extract, to cool your throat and suppress your cough, though some brands use honey or other ingredients. 

So when the researchers surveyed the patients, they didn’t just ask if they were taking cough drops, but which brands and how many. About 90% of them were taking lozenges that contained menthol.

The more severe the person rated their cough, the more cough drops they would take. This finding was not surprising, the researchers wrote, because, of course, if your cough is worsening, you’ll likely want more soothing cough drops. However, they were surprised to find that, among those taking menthol-containing drops, the higher the dose of menthol in the cough drop, the worse the individuals rated their coughs. 

The scientists noted it was unlikely that patients were comparing the menthol contents of different drops and seeking higher doses based on the severity of their coughs, thus, it was reasonable to suggest that perhaps the menthol itself was exacerbating their coughs.

The researchers also found that it wasn’t just how much menthol was in each individual drop, but how much accumulated in your body over the day. Twenty, low-level menthol drops could be just as likely to worsen your cough as only a few very high-level menthol cough drops.

This study focused on those people whose cough could be described as a “tickle in the throat,” a cough that can be triggered by talking, one that is not productive (doesn’t bring up phlegm), and with which the patient has no fever.

How to Get Rid of a Lingering Cough

I spoke with Mead and told him I had that very cough described above, and I’d been using 10 or more cough drops a day, often coughing while the drop was in my mouth! I stopped the cough drops as soon as I read the article.

“When was that?” he asked.
“Two days ago,” I responded.
“Was your coughing worse yesterday?”
“Yes, it was, but much better today.”
“That’s the rebound effect of the menthol; it takes a day or so to get out of your body.”

Of course, Mead noted, the study did not consider underlying reasons for the cough. Coughs that come from asthma, COPD, or other health reasons could have completely different responses to menthol.

What does Mead suggest to his patients now? Patience, and if the coughing is too disruptive, choosing a cough syrup that has dexamethasone is often effective at suppressing it.

The study was conducted by the WREN, headquartered in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

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