Colds, coughs and mixed signals

Peter Jackson
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My wife has a cough. A nagging, persistent one. It keeps her (and me) awake at night.

“I took three tablespoons of cough syrup last night,” she admitted the other day.

“I don’t think cough medicine really works,” I replied.

“Yes, I think you’re right,” she said.

As it turns out, cough medicine is pretty well useless.

According to the Associated Press (AP), chest physicians in the U.S. came to that conclusion more than five years ago.

 “The best studies that we have to date would suggest there’s not a lot of justification for using these medications because they haven’t been shown to work,” Dr. Richard Irwin, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, told AP in 2006.

The American College of Chest Physicians’ cough treatment guidelines actually discourage use of over-the-counter cough medicines. Not only are they ineffective, but Irwin said people may waste valuable time on them instead of seeking treatment for more serious coughs, including whooping cough.

The college’s findings have been endorsed by the American Thoracic Society and the Canadian Thoracic Society.

The problem, said Irwin, is that while some syrups may contain antihistamines and other drugs such as codeine and dextromethorphan, no over-the-counter cough medication actually carries enough of these active ingredients to work effectively.

Oddly enough, if a cough medicine actually did work, it could kill you. That was the gist of a February 2011 article in the Daily Express.

“Coughs are nature’s way of getting rid of respiratory debris that shouldn’t be there,” Dr. Graham Archard, a spokesman for Britain’s Royal College of General Practitioners, told the Express.

“If there were a cough mixture that completely suppressed coughing, you’d be left with all that debris and would die.”

In the end, I suppose, cough syrup is mostly strong-tasting goo that brings you back to your childhood and makes you feel warm and safe inside. And for some people, that’s all they want.

I’m always amazed at how hard it is to shake false beliefs about common ailments.

There are some that most of us should know by now: colds and flus are two very different things; antibiotics are ineffective against colds and flus; you can’t catch a cold from being out in the cold.

But even these facts die hard. People will still say they’ve caught a bad flu, when you know it’s really a bad cold. I will even colloquially use the term “flu” on occasion, rather than swim against the current.

And surveys show many people still insist on treating cold and flu viruses with antibiotics. Of course, it’s the doctor’s fault for over-prescribing them; antibiotics should only be prescribed if it’s suspected a cold has led to a bacterial infection.

Then there’s the old saw about feeding a fever and starving a cold (or vice versa). I’ve never been quite sure what this is supposed to mean, but doctors assure us that no one should forgo healthy nutrition unless he or she has trouble keeping food down. It’s OK to skip a meal or two, as long as you keep hydrated. But avoiding food, in itself, doesn’t help the healing process.

And finally, here’s one that fooled me up until this week.

My wife first noticed a catch in her throat on the plane flying back from vacation. It developed into a full-blown cold and cough.

We both agreed it’s because the recycled air on a crowded plane makes it a cesspool of viruses. Right? Not necessarily so.

University of California, San Francisco researchers have found that flying in a plane that uses recirculated air throughout the cabin led to no more colds than did flying in a plane with 100 per cent fresh air ventilation. And Boeing reports that the high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters used to filter cabin air have a greater than 99 per cent efficiency in removing germs from the air.

Now that I think of it, it was foolish to think the industry hadn’t already thoroughly researched this possibility.

Another myth busted. And it won’t be the last.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email:

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: The American College, Royal College of General Practitioners, University of California Associated Press University of Massachusetts American Thoracic Society Daily Express Boeing

Geographic location: U.S., Britain, San Francisco

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Recent comments

  • Patient
    February 13, 2013 - 08:23

    Different types of couch can mean different things..!