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For Kid's Coughs, Swap The Over-The-Counter Syrups For Honey

A spoonful of honey makes the medicine...irrelevant. That's because honey works better than cough syrups to help with kids' coughs. But don't give honey to infants under one years old.
Rachen Buosa
Getty Images/EyeEm
A spoonful of honey makes the medicine...irrelevant. That's because honey works better than cough syrups to help with kids' coughs. But don't give honey to infants under one years old.

If you don't have little kids, or it's been a while, let me just break down for you why kids' coughs can be a truly miserable problem that can drive you to madness.

Imagine this: Your kid's coughing — it's almost always worse at night — then they start crying because they're tired and can't sleep with all the coughing. The coughing and crying means that not only do they not sleep, but you also don't sleep — no one in the house sleeps — and this can go on for weeks.

So what do you do? You might, logically, go to the drug store. When you get there, there might be dozens of bottles of cough syrup promising to help your kid's cough. You'll see labels with babies and crescent moons that promise to relieve "chest congestion" and help your kid sleep.

Pediatrician Jennifer Shu says don't buy it. Shu, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the shelves of kids' cough medicine at the pharmacy are not really about good medicine — it's marketing.

"If you make it, some people are going to buy it," she says. "That's why you see lots of products on shelves that may not be necessary or even safe for kids."

Mostly, these kids cough syrups have either a cough suppressant like dextromethorphan (in Robitussin and Delsym, for example) or an antihistamine like diphenhydramine (in Benadryl and Dimetapp).

"What the studies have shown is that — for some reason — in kids they aren't that effective," she explains.

Plus, these drugs can cause side effects, she says, "such as increasing your blood pressure, making your heart rate go up or suppressing the drive to breathe — and that's definitely something we don't want for kids."

So what can desperate, sleep-starved parents give their kids? The answer might be already in the kitchen cupboard.

"Honey is at least as effective as those many, many products that you see in the drugstore," says Dr. Bud Wiedermann, an infectious disease specialist at Children's National Hospital in Washington D.C. This is only for kids older than 1 year old. (There's a risk of botulism for infants.)

There is some research to back up honey as a cough treatment. One randomized controlled trial in Israel asked parents of coughing kids to give their child either honey or a date syrup that looked and tasted like honey (a placebo), and found that the honey group said that the child's cough and sleep as improved after one night of honey, but parents who gave the date syrup found no improvement (note this study was partially funded by the Honey Board of Israel). Another study found honey worked about as well as dextromethorphan without the risks of side effects.

How does honey work to quiet a cough? Shu says, it's not clear.

"Honey has some natural antibacterial and antiviral properties," she says. "It contains hydrogen peroxide, so there is a theory that that's why it might help fight a cold. But also the thickness of it helps coat the throat and makes it feel more comfortable so you don't have that dry, ticklish feeling that's causing your cough."

Wiedermann says — prevention is important too. Even though we're halfway through flu seasons he says it's not too late to get the flu vaccine."Not just your children, but the whole family, because with the adults being immunized you lessen the likelihood that there'll be intense household exposure," he says. "Don't go to work if you're sick; don't go to school if you're sick — you're just spreading your virus to other people."

And, he says, whether you're trying to avoid getting sick or you've already got something: "Wash hands. Wash hands. Wash hands."

Besides honey, there are a few other tried and true home treatments for a stubborn kid's cough — make sure they're drinking lots of fluids, prop them up on a pillow, try using a humidifier or a menthol chest rub.

If your little one has a fever or labored breathing, Shu says, you might need to get medical attention. Otherwise, just buckle in and try to ride it out as best you can. She says kids can get an average of one cold a month in the winter — and each one can last two weeks — or longer.

So here's her final advice: "Patience young grasshopper," she laughs. "It'll feel like it's lasting forever, but it will go away."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.

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