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Pharmacy/Alcohol as a cure?

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Question
I'm not sure if you would be the one to ask this question to, but perhaps you might know the answer.

My mother was in church and had a sudden coughing "attack" so she had to leave for a moment to get a drink of water before she went back inside. As she was leaving at the end of the service, a long time friend said, jokingly. "A shot of whiskey would take care of that cough!" and they both had a good laugh. They are both in their 80's and I know my mother rarely drinks any alcohol at all. Which brings me to my question: Is there any evidence that whiskey or rum, bourbon, vodka, etc., have ANY medicinal effect on coughing or other cold symptoms, for that matter, other than just getting someone drunk?

Thank you for your response.

David Ritchey

Answer
Hi David,
Thanks for your question.  The short answer to your question is 'no', there is no evidence that alcohol in any form (be it rum, vodka, whiskey etc) can treat or prevent a cough or cold.  The key word in this sentence is 'evidence'.  I do not believe that alcohol has been clinically studied and put to human trials in this way, so there is always a possibility that it may work.  In other words no-one has proven it or disproven it.  And as you mention in your question, people have been swearing by it for years.  It is possible that alcohol may have a demulcent or 'soothing' effect.  It certainly does warm the chest.  This may help.  I suppose if you have enough of it, it'll cause drowsiness and its effects on the brain may suppress the cough reflex and/or respiratory centre.  But this may not be a good thing.  The cough reflex is there for a reason.  The lungs are very sensitive and even the tiniest bit of saliva that's 'gone the wrong way' can set off a coughing spurt, which can often be violent.  It's the body's response to ridding foreign matter from the lungs; matter that should not belong there.  And it does this because the lungs play a vital role in keeping us alive.  They need every bit of surface area to function adequately for gas exchange; to absorb oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.  So, suppressing a cough is not always ideal, although there are occasions where it is necessary, particularly when a dry cough lingers.  But anyway, I'm digressing....back to alcohol.  Cough syrups often contain high proportions of alcohol.  However, the alcohol here is not believed to have a therapeutic effect.  It's purpose is to behave as a solvent for the active ingredients.  As I said, there could be a demulcent or soothing effect, but there is not clinical evidence of this and product manufacturers will not list alcohol as such on their labels.      

The other thing to be aware of is that as an 80+ year old, your mother may be more sensitive to the harmful effects of alcohol.  Drowsiness can lead to falls.  Falls can lead to fractures and other problems.  Also, at her age, your mother may have other conditions for which alcohol may be ill-advised.  And of course, there may be drug interactions with medications that she's currently taking, especially with ones that already cause drowsiness, as the effects may be compounded.

I hope I've helped you with this response, David.  I wish your mother all the best.

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Gisella Campanelli

Expertise

I am able to answer questions relating to pharmaceuticals, therapeutic regimes and primary health care. This includes offering advice on drug indications, dosages, and disease state management. I can also identify side effects, drug interactions and contra-indications, and offer recommendations on ways to mitigate these. I can diagnose minor illnesses and suggest appropriate over-the-counter remedies and/or preventive healthcare tips. I can recognize cardinal symptoms which would otherwise require referral to a medical practitioner.

Experience

I am a registered pharmacist in Australia, and I have practiced in a hospital pharmacy for over thirteen years. My clinical specializations lie within the areas of psychiatry and general medicine (including gastroenterology, respiratory, endocrinology, neurology, infectious diseases, gerontology, dermatology). I self-managed the training program for pharmacy interns in preparation for their final registration exams, and I have worked for the Pharmacy Board of Australia as an examiner and exam writer.

Education/Credentials
I hold a Bachelor of Pharmacy from the Victorian College of Pharmacy, Monash University, and I am board-registered to practice within Australia. I also hold a Master's degree in an unrelated field (art conservation).

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