The lowdown on ‘substandard’ cough syrups

Giving your child over-the-counter cough syrups can be dangerous. Instead, consult your doctor when your child falls ill

Updated - June 23, 2023 10:51 am IST

Published - June 23, 2023 10:44 am IST

Cough Syrups have proven to be deadly for over 300 children

Cough Syrups have proven to be deadly for over 300 children | Photo Credit: Daniel Heighton

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has claimed that 300 children have died so far since August 2022, across three countries, due to substandard cough syrups made in India. Further, it issued an alert for seven syrups produced in India. India’s Drugs Controller General has since made it mandatory to test cough syrups, by specified labs, before they are exported.

Shailaja Mane, head, Department of Paediatrics, DPU Private Super Speciality Hospital, Pune, says cough syrups can pose a risk in two ways.

“One is a problem with the content itself,” she says, adding that the recent incidents all stemmed from the presence of high levels of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol which damage the kidneys. Secondly, unscientific combinations, where certain chemical components interact with the other can also be harmful, she says. Earlier this month, the government banned 14 fixed-drug combinations used to treat common infections, cough, and fever, ‘as they lack therapeutic relevance and may pose risks to human beings’.

The sale of over-the-counter cough syrups, in general, should be curtailed, says Dr. Mane, pointing out that it is too easy, in India, to get drugs without a prescription or by relying on an old one. She strongly recommends avoiding all forms of self-medication, especially if a child is very young. “If they feel drowsy, experience dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, or are not able to verbalise, consider these harmful,” she says. Cough syrups containing codeine should not be given to any child as it is not just addictive but can be lethal, she adds.

More importantly, a cough is just a symptom, not a disease in itself. “You need to find the reason for the cough and treat that,” says Himanshu Batra, senior consultant, Paediatrics, at Manipal Hospital, Delhi. He says it’s best to consult a paediatrician, as a cough syrup for dry and phlegmatic coughs have different medication, and the idea is never to suppress one. “This can be particularly dangerous in young children as it causes mucous to build up,” says Dr. Batra.

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