Cough Syrup
Cough Syrup Pouring into Spoon. (Getty Images)
Man pouring cough mixture onto plastic spoon (Photo by Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Man pours cough syrup onto a plastic spoon. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


When you’re feeling your worst this time of year, it’s satisfying to look in the medicine cabinet and find a ready bottle of cough syrup. Except apparently it doesn’t actually do anything for you. The American Chemical Society has investigated, and their findings suggest we’ve all been wasting our money at the pharmacy.

Over-the-counter cough syrups are supposed to benefit you in a number of ways. They may block your body’s cough reflex. They might offer expectorants to thin mucus and make it easier to cough. Some should open airways by narrowing blood vessels. Or they have antihistamines to reduce swelling in the nose and throat.

At least, they do in theory. Unfortunately, the chemists found these over-the-counter cough syrups generally performed little better than a placebo, with a notable exception.

There is one proven benefit to cough syrup: It makes you drowsy and helps you sleep. (This is why you should respect the suggested dosages and be careful giving it to small children—and yes, do heed those warnings about not using them and operating heavy machinery.)

The ACS suggest additional research on this topic, but the initial results are grim. Happily, there are still things you can do to help yourself. To start, stay hydrated. Take hot showers. And if you feel like spending money, get cough drops to suck on and spring for a humidifier.

To read more about cough syrup, click here. Watch the video from the American Chemical Society below.