Anaesthetists across the country are campaigning for more than 50 cough medicines to become prescription-only products, due to concerns about a common ingredient.

A group of anaesthetists have asked Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to ban or reduce access to cough medicines containing an opioid-based cough suppressant called pholcodine because of research linking it to anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) in patients when they are given particular drugs.

Co-ordinator of the Australian and New Zealand Anaesthetic Allergy Group Dr Helen Crilly said a growing number of anaesthetists were concerned that pholcodine was creating sensitivity in people to muscle relaxant drugs commonly used in procedures such as appendix and gall bladder removals.

She said while about one in every 10,000 Australians suffer anaphylaxis during surgery, this rate nearly doubled to one in 6000 when muscle relaxants were used.

”Even though it doesn’t sound particularly common, if you are the one in 6000 that it occurs to, you would think it was worth preventing. One of the problems is that it happens to people who are young and fit and well so no one expects a problem,” she said.

The renewed call comes after a woman nearly died on the operating table before being resuscitated by hospital staff after using cough medicine.

Narelle Campbell, 52, said she went into hospital for something unrelated to her cold but it was the over-the-counter medicine that nearly ended her life.

“I flatlined completely I was gone,” she told nine news.

“The thing that surprises me as I went in there to have an operation for an aneurysm and I actually died on the table because of cough medicine.”

The incident has renewed concerns over the active ingredient in many cough medicines.

Ms Campbell had been taking the medicine before going in for surgery.

Share your comments below

  • And I didn’t think there was anything untoward in a bottle of cough medicine nowadays


  • If you have to go to the dr for a prescription for cough medicine. I can see many people just soldiering on, not doing anything for themselves or kids. Gps used to scoff when I would talk about which cough medicine to buy for my kids. According to them, cough medicines don’t do much at all, more of a placebo affect


  • It definitely should not be sold in a supermarket. If it is sold in a pharmacy, either over the counter or by prescription the pharmacist should check if you know you are allergic to any of the ingredients and you have to be honest when asked what medications you are taking – prescriptions and non-prescription. A pharmacy can check interactions of different medications/substances. In fact some pharmacists pick up interactions better than GPs do. I have had to have changes made on more than one occasion.


  • This is a bit of a conundrum – I wouldn’t see a doctor for just the cold, but I may use cough medicine if it was really bad. I think I have only ever used it once or twice myself and a handful of times on my kids. I don’t think they should ban it as it gives relief when you have bad symptoms and going to the doctors in Tasmania isn’t free so it could just cause more problems. Maybe they just need to find a new active ingredient.


  • Who’d have thought a cough medicine could cause this type of problem. Don’t think many people would use the cough medicine if they needed a script for it.


  • This is a real concern, thank you for sharing.


  • Wow… I am really confused about cough medicines. Why are they available when I’m constantly reading that they’re not any good. Can someone provide some factual and informed detail to help me decide? And if you’re going in for surgery, you’re supposed to list everything you’re taking. I’m so confused.


  • I find these articles frustrating because they only present part of the picture…. people having surgery shouldn’t be using cough mixtures, yes I understand some surgery is unscheduled and emergency, and the hospitals should be checking what they medicines they have been taking…. it is already difficult to get cough mixtures for kids so imagine if they took them away and we just had to listen to our kids struggle through their cough with no mixture to help them…. perhaps an alternative needs to be found, or at least conclusive research.


  • would it not be better to find a different safer ingredient to replace this?


  • I find getting prescriptions really annoying though, it’s hard to get a doctor’s appointment…


  • Great move, but a better idea is to make safer ones, taking out dangerous ingredients. There are many natural alternatives and you can make your own with natural ingredients, google it. Good ole honey does the trick.


  • Yet another reason to talk to your pharmacist about drug combinations! Hospitals should also include asking if the patient takes/took cough medicine in their case history now too


  • Making them prescription only isn’t going to fix this issue as most doctors recommend cough medicine if the cough is persistent or bad enough. Removal of this ingredient will stop anyone from developing this in the future but won’t help those who already have it (wether they know they do or not). Seems like they need to include a question on wether the person going in for an op has used cough medicine and take it from there.


  • When an over the counter medicine contains dangerous ingredients, it should either go on script only or the dangerous ingredient should be reduces or removed.
    The story tells this woman went in for something unrelated to the cold and tells she actually died on the table because of the cough medicine. If this truly is the case is the question I think, an operation for an aneurysm is quite serious.


  • I can understand their reasoning behind make it script only. Removing the ingredient would also work.


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