Coughing in children: UMMS pediatric pulmonologist warns of cough medicine safety and efficacy

By Sarah Willey and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

September 07, 2017
  UMass Medical School pediatric pulmonologist Ted Kremer, MD

Ted Kremer, MD

With school back in session and cooler weather approaching, cold and flu season is on the way. A federal committee will meet on Sept. 11 to consider whether cough medicine containing certain opioids, such as codeine, should no longer be used to treat severe pain or cough in children.

“There really isn’t evidence in the pediatric population that codeine works to improve cough,” said Ted Kremer, MD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration warned that drugs containing codeine should not be used to treat pain or cough in children under 12. The FDA said codeine can carry serious risks, especially for young children, including slowed or difficult breathing and even death. In order to better protect children, the agency required new warning labels on those drugs.

The Pediatric Advisory Committee meeting will evaluate children’s cough medicines containing opioids. Dr. Kremer, a pediatric pulmonologist, said it’s vital that parents understand most children with a cough do not need an over-the-counter cough medicine, even though they are readily available.

“In general in pediatrics, there’s no good evidence that cough medications work for children with cough for whatever reason,” Kremer warned. “Parents must be careful, because there’s potential for harm if they overdose, or if the child gets their hands on them and the parent doesn’t realize.”

Not every cough merits a trip to the doctor, Kremer explained. Most often, a cough is caused by a virus, and letting a child cough is a way for their body to clear out the mucus and protect their lungs from a more serious infection.

Kremer encourages parents to use simple remedies such as, saline nasal sprays and humidifiers first. Even a teaspoon of honey for children over 1 year of age may help minimize a cough. But of course, if ever parents are unsure of a persistent cough, he advises that it is still best to call the pediatrician. 

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