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."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Parents can find themselves desperate and confused about what to do when a particularly young kid has a bad cough. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports that for kids older than 1, the best thing might already be sitting in your kitchen cupboard.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: If you don't have little kids, or it's been a while, let me just break down for you why coughs can be a problem, like a truly miserable, all-caps problem. Your kid's coughing...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COUGHING)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...It's almost always worse at night.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COUGHING)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Then they start crying because they can't sleep with all the coughing, and they're exhausted.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COUGHING, CRYING)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That means they don't sleep. You don't sleep. No one in the house sleeps. And this can go on for a week or longer. So what do you do? You might reasonably go to the pharmacy.
I am in the drugstore here. There are over two dozen different bottles of cough syrup for kids here. And they say reassuring things, like relieves nasal congestion and cures cough, nighttime relief.
Dr. Jennifer Shu says, don't buy it. She's a pediatrician in Atlanta and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. And she says all of these promises are just marketing.
JENNIFER SHU: If you make it, some people are going to buy it. And so that's why you see lots of products on shelves that may not be necessary or even safe for kids.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says there's research that for kids, the drugs commonly in these cough syrups do more harm than good.
SHU: What we've found out in studies is that for some reason in kids, a lot of the over-the-counter cough medicines aren't that effective. So why take a chance and risk some of the serious side effects?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Like possibly increasing blood pressure, making your heart rate go up or suppressing the drive to breathe. So what can you, the desperate, sleep-starved parent of a coughing kid, do?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COUGHING)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There are a couple of things, the first of which is quite delicious.
BUD WIEDERMANN: Honey is at least as effective as those many, many products that you see in the drugstore.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Dr. Bud Wiedermann of Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. He says several randomized controlled trials have found that honey works as well as cough medicine without those potential side effects. And honey works better than a placebo or no treatment. This is only for kids older than 1 years old because of the risk of botulism for infants. How does honey work for a cough? Shu says it's not totally clear, but there are some theories.
SHU: Honey has some natural antibacterial and antiviral properties. But also, the thickness of it helps coat the throat, so you don't have that dry, ticklish feeling that's causing your cough.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Shu and Wiedermann both also suggest some other tried and true home remedies - lots of fluids, propping the kid up on a pillow, humidifiers, menthol chest rubs. If your little one has a fever or labored breathing, you might need medical attention. Otherwise, Shu says, just buckle in, and try to ride it out the best you can.
SHU: Patience, young grasshopper. It'll feel like it's lasting forever, but it will go away.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says kids can average one cold a month in the winter, and each one can last two weeks or longer. So hang in there. Spring will be here eventually. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "RETURN TO BLACKNESS (FOR GB)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.