Why Doesn’t Cough Medicine Work?

Cover Your CoughThis video explains why cough medicines don’t work. It explains mucociliary clearance, which is like the mini Rumba that cleans your lungs.

Cilia are the tiny hair-like projections that line the lungs and airways. They beat together in waves to move mucus out of our lungs. When we are healthy, don’t smoke and breath unpolluted air, the cilia work great. The mucus secreted by our airways traps viruses, bacteria, air pollution, allergens and dead cells, sweeping them quietly up to the top of our throat to be swallowed with salvia. Think of it like a tiny escalator.

Infections and irritants damage the cilia. Their beautiful wave-like movement stops. The protective mucus inside the lungs builds up–along with all the extra mucus that colds and pollen and pollution trigger. To clear the mucus, you have to manually clear the lungs. In other words, you have to cough. Watch the video on cough here.

Over the counter cough medicines don’t work because they can’t get the cilia working again. They are sold to suppress cough, and cough suppressants don’t work because they tell the brain, “Hey, don’t cough.” Your lungs, faced with this build up of mucus, are going to cough because cough is a primitive, protective reflex. If you didn’t cough, your lungs would fill up with mucus and there would be no place for the air to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide.

To suppress cough, you need to heavily sedate the patient, but too much sedative and the patient doesn’t breath. This can happen when people consume too much alcohol or other sedatives.

Doctors suppress cough in a very controlled manner for patients getting general anesthesia or when patients are on a ventilator. The risk to these patients, however, is pneumonia because sedation eliminates the protective cough reflex.

To treat cough, doctors need medicines that repair the waving cilia or we need ways to prevent patients from becoming sick with the infections that do the damage.

For more on cough, see these posts on cough medicines and kids, what’s in cough medicines, and using honey for cough.



About Lisa M. Asta, MD

Lisa M. Asta, M.D. is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is also a Media Representative (she has been interviewed for “Kids Health” on Health Radio, and quoted in Parenting Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times, among other publications). She is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco and past pediatric chair at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She graduated from Temple University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Asta is also a writer whose fiction has appeared in Inkwell, Philadelphia Stories, Schuylkill, and Zeniada. Her essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hippocrates, the San Jose Mercury News, and The New Physician Magazine. She is an occasional contributor to KQED public radio’s Perspectives series, and has written articles for Bay Area Parent, Valley Parent, Parents’ Press, and Parents Express, as well as online at WebMD.com, Rx.com, and MyLifePath.com. She wrote a chapter in The Field Guide to the Normal Newborn, ed. Gary Emmet, M.D. BabyCenter.com currently has two how-to videos for parents in production which feature Dr. Asta. For more on Dr. Asta’s writing, visit www.LMAsta.com
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2 Responses to Why Doesn’t Cough Medicine Work?

  1. Pingback: Reading the Box: Product Information | Casa Verde Pediatrics, Inc. Blog

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