Unknown Overdosing: The Dangers of OTC Cough Medicine

The Dangers of OTC Cough Suppressant Overdose & Natural Alternatives to Offer Your Patients.

Gustavo Ferrer, MD

It is common knowledge that Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, can be dangerous when more than the maximum recommended dosage (3 grams) is taken. Acetaminophen overdose is the #1 leading cause of acute liver failure and liver transplants in the United States.

"One of the biggest concerns we have here at the center is when people are taking Tylenol for pain, sleeping pills, and a cough suppressant with Acetaminophen in it; it's extremely easy to overdose and not even realize it," says Dr. Ferrer.

His advice? Have your patients use an antihistamine instead, which is more than enough for cough and post-nasal drip. "You will have more control, and it will be better for your health."

Another danger of OTC cough suppressants that affects teenagers more than any other age group is the abuse of cough syrup, which contains the high-inducing dextromethorphan (DXM). This abuse is so rampant that one out of three college students knows someone who has used cough syrup as a recreational drug, and most parents have no idea that their children are raiding their medicine cabinets. Worse, studies have shown that DXM does not have proven value as a cough suppressant.

In addition to antihistamines, several natural "cures" are available. One you might not expect? Chocolate! "It's a great alternative that we use for our patients – as long as it is dark chocolate greater than 65 percent," says Dr. Ferrer.

Ginger tea is an herbal option, and Dr. Ferrer also recommends gargling with salty water and honey. Boil water on the stove and add a teaspoon of salt as it is boiling. Allow it to cool, then add a teaspoon of honey; lemon may also be added. Gargle with this mixture three times a day:"It's much better than lozenges," says Dr. Ferrer. Scientific studies confirm the effectiveness of gargling salt water.

Most of all, it's important to make sure your patients don't unknowingly over-medicate themselves. "If you don't have any chronic disease, and you aren't a smoker, then coughing for four to five days while you have a cold shouldn't be a problem. The problem is when you've been coughing for two to three weeks; then you should seek medication or medical help," advises Dr. Ferrer.

Overuse of antibiotics is also dangerous and should be avoided; after only one week of coughing is too early to seek antibiotic treatment. Given time, rest, and fluids, the healthy human body should be able to heal on its own.

Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, MD, FCCP, founded the Cleveland Clinic Cough Center and is Associate Professor of Medicine at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, Berry University, and St. Georges University. He has been featured on CNN en Español, USNews, MSNBC, and The Miami Herald.