Doctor's Orders: a Placebo to Help Baby's Cough?

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Associate Editor
February 28, 2017
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For many parents, giving your coughing baby medicine isn’t an easy decision. But it turns out you might not have to make that choice, thanks to a placebo effect.

Researchers looked at 119 coughing children between two months and four years old. While all of the kids had coughs that lasted for more than seven days, none had a history of lung disease, chronic illness, asthma or pneumonia. They were broken up into three groups: group one got a dose of agave nectar , group two had grape-flavored water (the placebo), and group three received no treatment at all.

Wondering why agave nectar was used as a form of treatment? Honey  has been a proven go-to cough suppressant, but the botulism spores that might be in it can be fatal to babies under age one. So all group one participants got the next best thing: agave nectar, which is similar in texture and taste.

Parents — who didn’t know whether or not their children were receiving the placebo — recorded the frequency and severity of coughs. They also noted if coughing interfered with their child’s sleep or their own. It turns out agave nectar and flavored water were much more effective in curbing coughs than nothing at all, but neither was more effective than the other.

Here’s the kicker: the placebo might actually be working on the parents. Penn State pediatrics professor Dr. Ian M. Paul, who headed up the JAMA Pediatrics study (which was partially funded by Zarbee’s Inc., the maker of the agave nectar) says that since the coughs are temporary and not chronic, “which is more important — that the child actually cough less, or that parents feel they’re coughing less and then don’t call the doctor, don’t ask for unnecessary antibiotics? There are positive benefits to parents simply feeling better about their child’s condition.”

So less medicine might be the best medicine after all — what do you think? (via NY Times)

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