over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are unsafe and ineffective for children; herbal cough remedies are safe and effective

This should not be controversial, but it is. The fact that over-the-counter cough and cold drugs are unproven and unsafe for children, while natural treatments are proven and safe is often ignored and even reversed.

Parents are often led to believe that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are studied and proven for their children; they are also often led to believe that there is no science behind the natural solutions.

The truth is that the science says the reverse. In 2007, an FDA advisory panel said that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines offer no benefit, but considerable risk, for children under 6 and recommended against their use. In 2018, the FDA repeated the warning not to give any kind of cough or cold product to children under two.

In 2019, the Mayo Clinic reminded parents that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, “haven't been proved to work any better than inactive medicine (placebo). More important, these medications have potentially serious side effects. . . .” They advise against using cough and cold medicines “in children younger than 6 years old,” and then the Mayo Clinic extends the age of concern to cover all children, adding, “Also, consider avoiding use of these medicines for children younger than 12 years old.”

So, the science says that over-the-counter cough and cold medicine is neither safe nor effective for your child. What does it say about herbal treatments?

It says they’re safe; it says they work.

A combination of ivy and thyme has been shown to work better and faster than placebo at reducing coughing fits in people with bronchitis (Arzneimittelforschung 2006;56(9):652-60).

Ivy alone is as effective as the drug ambroxol for bronchitis (Zeits Allegemeinmed 1993;69:61–6). When 5,162 children with productive cough were given a cough syrup made from ivy leaf dry extract twice a day, the ivy syrup significantly decreased coughing. 68.2% of the children’s guardians were “very satisfied” with the herbal cough syrup: that’s a high level of satisfaction (Wiad Lek 2020;73(4):668-673).

A just published observational, unblinded study of adults with acute cough due to upper respiratory infection found that an ivy/thyme syrup significantly improves symptoms. Quality of life improved significantly, and 87.2% of people had clinically significant improvement in cough severity (Curr Med Res Opin 2021 Oct;37(10):1837-1844).

A systematic review and meta-analysis of herbal cough remedies found strong evidence for the herb andrographis and for ivy, thyme or primrose based remedies. It also found moderate evidence for Pelargonium sidoides, a remarkable herb for bronchitis (Forsch Komplementmed 2015;22:359-368).

Now, a new study has added new proof for a combination of traditional cough herbs (BMC Pediatr. January 11, 2021;21(1):29).

This double-blind study included 106 children between the ages of 3 and 6: in other words, children for whom over-the-counter cough medicines are not safe to take. Half were given a placebo cough syrup, and half were given a herbal cough syrup made of honey, mallow, elecampane, plantain and Helichrysum stoechas. The study was double-blinded and lasted 8 days.

After one day, the herbal cough syrup significantly decreased both daytime and nighttime cough compared to the placebo cough syrup. The significant greater improvement continued through days 4 and 8. Coughing subsided in significantly more kids who were taking the herbal cough syrup.

The herbal cough syrup was as safe as the placebo, meaning that, unlike over-the-counter cough medicines, the herbal cough syrup is both effective and safe for children.

And that is what the real science says!


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For much more on preventing and treating cold and flu naturally, see our book The Family Naturopathic Encyclopedia


For comprehensive help with your health, including cough and cold and immune health, make an appointment to see Linda Woolven nowLinda’s clinic is now open for virtual appointments.

The Natural Path is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. For health problems, consult a qualified health practitioner for a comprehensive program.


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