Last updated on Feb 10th, 2021 at 10:19 am

According to a South African cold and flu study, the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to treat colds and flu increased in 2016, with the most popular medications aimed at pain and fever relief, as well as medication for wet and dry coughs and colds.

Given the high cost of GP visits, as well as access to health information online, it’s not difficult to see why more people are self-medicating.

ALSO SEE: Different types of coughs and how to treat them

Choosing the right cough medication

Surveys suggest that at any one time, up to one in three children or adults are suffering from a cough, so it’s not surprising that coughs are among the most common complaints that people seek medical advice for. Last year, South Africans spent around half a billion rand on cough syrup medicines alone.

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But, there are risks involved with using consumer healthcare products, including the potential for misuse and abuse, and adverse effects when not used properly. The wrong choice or incorrect use of cough syrups can lead to potentially harmful medicine interactions and side-effects, and may end up costing you more in the long run.

ALSO SEE: Are you using your medicine safely? Follow this advice when taking medication

In addition, the combination of ingredients found in some cough syrups may be counterproductive and addictive. A 2015 report by eNCA’s investigative current affairs show, Check Point, found that cough syrups containing codeine were the most abused OTC drug in South Africa. Abusing codeine, in whatever form, may be detrimental to your health and like other opioid medications, abuse can result in vomiting and nausea, constipation, drowsiness, or even respiratory depression in severe cases.

Treating the cause, not the symptom

An acute wet cough is caused by the build-up of mucus, so one way to treat it is by getting rid of the mucus causing the congestion. This is where OTC mucolytics have a key role to play. Mucolytics are drugs that loosen or break down mucus in the nose and chest, making it easier to cough up, and helping to reduce coughing and congestion quickly. They contain N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and are available from your pharmacy. Some come in the form of an effervescent tablet, making the medicine a lot easier to administer. They are alcohol-free, and because each tablet contains a fixed dose of NAC, it can be pre-mixed in a bottle of water, limiting the possibility of dosing errors.

Given the amount of money spent on cough medicines annually, it makes sense for you to speak to your healthcare provider about the best solution for your family’s needs. A visit to the pharmacy is a convenient time to ask your pharmacist key questions that could impact your health.

ALSO SEE: 5 common questions parents ask pharmacist

Important questions to ask when buying over-the-counter medications:

  • What can I expect from this medication?
  • How long can I use the medication before I need to consult a doctor?
  • Will this medication affect other medicine I am already taking?
  • What can I do about persistent, minor ailments?