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Child fatalities linked to cough syrups

Posted July 4, 2016 by myjoburg in My Joburg
Shot of a caring mother giving her sick little girl a spoonful of medicine

What’s in a spoon? The darker side of cough medication


Cough syrup, once thought of as the go-to medication for mothers of coughing kids, has come under the spotlight recently for its potentially harmful – and even fatal – effects. New research, compounded by opinions from key medical health professionals, has revealed the risky ingredients ubiquitous in the majority of over-the-counter cough syrups can pose a serious health risk.


A 2006 study, conducted by the Arizona Child Fatality Review, revealed several infant deaths associated with cold medication and cough syrup use. These deaths were closely linked to decongestants, antihistamines and cough suppressants – all common ingredients in over-the-counter cough syrups.


In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended explicitly that cough and cold products should not be used for children under two years old. The Therapeutic Goods Association in Australia has gone as far as banning the use of some cough medicines in children under the age of 6. This recommendation came amidst findings that common decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines and antitussives could cause convulsions, rapid heart rate, decreased levels of consciousness, and even death.


Slow to react

According to Christine Venter, President of the South African Association of Community Pharmacists (SAACP), South Africa can improve their awareness and catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to avoiding dangerous ingredients in cough syrups.


“When our children or loved ones have a cough, we assume cough syrup is the go-to treatment – it’s a staple in most medicine cupboards, trusted and relied upon to be safe and effective,” says Venter.



Cough syrup crutch

“It’s natural for mothers to feel overwhelmed and anxious when their child is up all night, uncomfortable due to coughing,” says Venter. “For many mothers, cough syrups ease their own discomfort, as much as their child’s, as they feel they’re doing something to help. In reality, they could be doing more harm than good.”


The anxiety and helplessness associated with having a sick child also makes it easy for mothers to unintentionally give children more than the recommended dose, and, in some cases, cause a dangerous overdose, in an attempt to bring about some relief.


Safe and effective cough syrups

If mothers, and other individuals, can take control of the medication they’re taking, they can avoid serious risks, says Venter. She recommends asking pharmacists or doctors for the safest possible option, with minimal side-effects.


“It’s not necessary to compromise on effectiveness – there are suitable cough therapies on the market. By asking the right questions and reading the package insert, you can find a cough treatment with the smallest side effect profile, that’ll still help to ease a nasty cough and a tight chest. A good question to ask is: does this product have clinical trials to substantiate claims regarding safety and efficacy? If no data exists, ask for a clinically proven cough treatment that does.”


Learn to read labels

Look out for these key ingredients in common cough syrups, read through the patient information leaflets for every product, and be aware of possible side effects.


Action Ingredient Side effects

(Opens airways)







Palpitations, nausea, insomnia and headache

(Thins mucus)





Gastric irritation

Stomach ulcers


(Suppresses the cough reflex)


Codeine phosphate






Drowsiness, constipation, respiratory depression and habit forming

(Dries mucus )





Doxylamine succinate


Drowsiness, sedation, blurred vision, urinary retention and constipation

(Dries mucus and reduces swelling)





Central nervous system stimulation, sleeplessness


Prospan® is a safe and effective cough treatment, that is clinically proven in more than 70 000 patients. Prospan ® is the cough treatment most prescribed by South African specialists. It contains no harmful ingredients and is safe and effective for the whole family. For more information about Prospan® and the responsible use of cough syrups, please contact References available on request.



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