Nyquil: “The nighttime sugar-laden, symptom masking, immunity compromising, hallucination inducing, weirdest-sleep-you’ve-ever-had-with-a-cold medicine.”
Coughs and colds are no fun to deal with. One of the most irritating parts of having a common respiratory illness is the lack of sleep. Rest is one of the simplest ways to help your body restore itself to health; but constant coughing, or a runny nose can interrupt one’s sleep. This is surely the rationale behind a host of popular cough and cold brands that are designed to help induce sleep. It’s easy to assume that because a bottle has the word “medicine” stamped across its label it must be safe and healthy. Over-the-counter medicine is especially subject to this assumption. It’s still vitally important to read the ingredients, understand what they are designed to do, and the risks, as well as the benefits, of ingesting these products.
Let’s look at one of the most popular over-the-counter cough and cold medicines with this in mind:
Active ingredients: Acetaminophen, 650 mg, Dextromethorphan HBr 30 mg, Doxylamine succinate 12.5 mg
Inactive Ingredients: Acesulfame Potassium, Alcohol, Citric Acid, D&C yellow No. 10, FD&C green No 3, FD&C yellow No. 6, Flavor, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Polyethylene Glycol, Propylene Glycol, Purified Water, Saccharin Sodium, Sodium Citrate.
Ok, let’s break down the active ingredients first. Acetaminophen is a pain reliever and fever reducer. While generally considered safe for over the counter use, acute overdoses can cause permanent liver damage, which is worsened by simultaneous consumption of alcohol. A safe dosage for an adult should not exceed 4,000 mg per day.
The second active ingredient, Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant or antitussive. This ingredient is also responsible for one of Nyquil’s more notorious side effects: dissociative hallucination. The physical state created by this ingredient is similar to those of recreational drugs, such as ketamine. So, over the counter medicines containing this ingredient are sometimes abused for non-therapeutic reasons. Even when taken at the recommended dose, side effects can include body rashes, itching, nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, closed-eye hallucination and difficulty breathing. When taken at dosages that exceed the recommended dose, side effects can include vomiting, double vision, sweating, fever, hypertension, shallow breathing, diarrhea and urinary retention. It can cause death in small children, and therefore is not appropriate for young ones.
The third and final active ingredient, Doxylamine succinate is a sedating antihistamine. One study found it to be more effective at sedation than the barbiturate phenobarbital. Side effects of taking this drug at the recommended dose include dry mouth, ataxia (lack of coordination of voluntary muscle movements), urinary retention, memory problems, inability to concentrate, hallucinations, psychosis and an increased sensitivity to external stimuli. Symptoms of overdose may include insomnia, night terrors, euphoria, hallucinations, seizures, blackouts, rhabdomyolysis (includes damage to muscles and kidneys) and death.
The inactive ingredient list contains several items that should be red-flagged for being of dubious benefit. Remember earlier in the article, when we established that acetaminophen can cause liver damage if consumed in excess, OR if consumed in combination with alcohol? Curious then that inactive ingredient #2 is none other than alcohol. Though it is probably a very small quantity, this provides further incentive to be extremely careful about overdosing with this product. Some of the other inactive ingredients–if found in a food product–would be reason enough not to ingest that product. Since the goal of taking a product such as Nyquil is supposed to restore wellness, we might want to extend the same rational. The inclusion of High Fructose Corn Syrup and food colorings are strong arguments to forego this product as well. High Fructose corn syrup is linked to a host of health problems, including liver damage, which is certainly not helped by the acetaminophen and alcohol already in this product. Corn syrup also weakens the body’s immune system, which is especially problematic at a time when immunity has already been compromised by illness. The inclusion of artificial dyes is troubling because side effects associated with these ingredients include hyperactivity and irritation of the digestive and respiratory systems. Lab tests also associate these ingredients with increased incidence of cancerous tumors.
A final thing to consider is that this medicine is not designed to help the body regain wellness at all, but merely to mask uncomfortable symptoms. There are plenty of simple and gentle food-based and herbal remedies that can help the body recover from a cold or cough–and achieve comfortable rest—without the risk of such extreme side effects. If we ascribe to the old adage that our food should be medicine, and our medicine should be food, it makes sense to carefully consider the ingredient list on a bottle of cold medicine.
4. Heinrichs, Jay and Behlen Heinrichs, Dorothy. Home Remedies from the Country Doctor. Yankee Publishing, 1999.