Cough syrup great for high, not great for a cold

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

It’s cold season again and lecture halls across campus echo with coughs and sniffles. Do not whip out the medication just yet " a recent medical review suggests over-the-counter cold medicines might not be as effective as once thought.

Published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international non-profit organization that independently reviews healthcare interventions, the review examined a wealth of current research about cold remedies.

A team reviewed 17 studies focusing on various medications, such as cough syrups, decongestants and antihistamines, in comparison with placebos.

Six of the nine studies supported by the pharmaceutical industry showed positive results of cold medication use versus only three of the 16 studies not backed by the industry.

Overall, the review determined the effects of cold medication to be weak at best.

Gerry Harrington, director of public affairs at the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association of Canada, addressed the potential bias of studies backed by pharmaceutical companies.

“Companies rarely invest in a large clinical trial unless they believe in a positive result,” Harrington explained.

Harrington is not confident in the accuracy of the review or its relevance to Canadians.

“The studies in that review looked at products that were not available in Canada or things that have not been approved in Canada as a cough suppressant.

“In other words, they are all irrelevant in the discussion of whether or not cold medications work in Canada,” Harrington concluded.

According to Leora Swartzman, associate professor of psychology and clinical pharmacology at Western, other studies have shown cough medication is about as effective as a placebo.

“If you’re asking ‘do [cough medications] work?’” Swartzman said, “they sure do " but so does the placebo. It’s not the active ingredient that’s working, it’s the confidence that it works.”

Harrington said those who feel cold medications work will likely continue using them.

“What we do know is that people tend to return to products based on experience,” he continued. “If [cold medication] works for them, they will return. I don’t see people re-evaluating their own real life experience.”

Harrington also noted that proving the legitimacy of cold medication is a challenge: “A cold lasts five to seven days. The process of getting people into a study is three or four days. The biggest problem we have is not the people who are using it aren’t getting better, it’s that they’re already getting better.”

In addition, it has taken a long time for cold medications to be put under the microscope due to their minimal importance in the medical community, Dr. Michael Reider, pediatrician and pharmacology professor at Western said.

“Also, to be frank, we haven’t had the technology ... in the study of the chemical process until now,” Dr. Reider added.

As for what could be done to relieve cough symptoms, Reider was able to provide some advice.

“I recommend common sense,” Dr. Reider said. “When kids get sick they just lie down and don’t do anything stressful " there’s a lot to be said about that.

“Don’t take a pill and rush off to work. If you want to make yourself feel better. Take it easy, slow down, and stay home. That will go a lot further than any of the medications we have today.”

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