One of the first things many parents do when they have a sick child is to reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicine such as Robitussin. Yet you might want to rethink this approach.

Myth: Cough & cold medicines help your child get better
Fact: Cough and cold medicines contain no medicinal properties whatsoever that will help you or your child get over their cold. They are only designed to suppress symptoms (and remember that most of those symptoms are the result of how your body fights the illness), and they do a rather poor job even of that.

How well do cough & cold medicines work?

The active ingredients in these products drug children and make them sleepy, but studies show they have absolutely no effect on a child’s cold symptoms. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) clearly states that there’s no evidence that these products work for their intended purpose. At one point the FDA even considered banning such products altogether, given their dangerous side effects and the fact that they don’t work, but in the end relented and allowed them to stay on the market, in large part due to industry lobbying. This is America, and apparently, you have the right to buy fraudulent and defective medicine if you so choose and companies have the right to make billions by selling the public sham medicines.

In the best of cases, OTC nasal decongestants will reduce an adult’s symptoms by only 4-6%, leaving 94% of symptoms in place. (Szabo, 2-16-2011) That’s a high price to pay for very little benefit.

Unfortunately, it seems that few people are getting this message. An April 2013 poll by the University of Michigan found 42% of parents with children under the age of 4 gave them cold medicine, and 44% said they used a multi-symptom cough and cold medicine. A 2011 University of Michigan poll found 61% of parents had given cough and cold medicines to children under 2.

A 2010 study in Child: Care, Health & Development found that about a third of parents hadn’t heard of the FDA warnings for use of these products in children, and among those who had, a third intended to use them anyway. Another study in Clinical Pediatrics found that 82% of parents with children under 6 said they would use the medication, and when prompted as to how, three-quarters indicated they would administer the wrong dose. Perhaps most alarmingly, some parents read the instruction not to give the medication to children under 4 and instead simply made up their own dose, guessing according to the package recommendations for older children.

The danger of giving your child cough & cold medicines

Put bluntly: These products are deadly. Around 7,000 children under the age of 12 are sent to the ER each year from cold medicines, most between the ages of two and five. Dozens upon dozens of children are known to have died from fatal overdoses, and actual numbers are believed to be much higher, since only a handful of cases make it into official statistics.

These are perfectly normal, healthy children who go to sleep and never wake up after being given an OTC cough & cold medicine. One family gave their two daughters doses when they were sick, only to discover the girls, ages 4 and 6, dead in their beds the next day. Companies wipe their hands clean and say such fatal effects are rare if used as directed, and that most fatalities occur from parents not following directions and accidentally giving too much. But would you want to take this risk for a product that experts concede doesn’t work?

You can get better relief for your child simply by giving them a tea with honey, and it costs next to nothing. So we would emphatically discourage parents from spending another dime on these dangerous products.

If for some reason you do decide to use them, read all instructions and follow them carefully. Most overdose deaths occur because parents misread the label and give too much, or because they give kids multiple doses too close together, or because they ignore the warnings and give them to a child under four.