24 August 2019
Chinese traditional herbal medicines have been gaining in popularity. Hou Tsao powder, for instance, is used for getting rid of cough and phlegm in children. Photo: Reuters
Chinese traditional herbal medicines have been gaining in popularity. Hou Tsao powder, for instance, is used for getting rid of cough and phlegm in children. Photo: Reuters

Is Hou Tsao powder overrated?

People love retro stuff. A lot of lifestyles from the 60s and 70s have been repackaged, making a comeback in the market.

Among the products seeking to ride the trend are Chinese over-the-counter (OTC) herbal medicines. These Chinese OTC herbal medicines are often marketed with centuries-old brands and have complicated Chinese wordings translated into more comprehensible western medical terms.

Many parents would have a few of these preventative drugs ready at home. Hou Tsao powder, for instance, could be one of the must-haves for getting rid of a cough and phlegm for children.

Hou Tsao powder is made from monkey bezoar and is mainly used for treating asthma, suppressing fear, reducing internal heat and detoxing.

Although it is advertised as a cure for reducing phlegm, due to its bitter-cold nature, it should only be used by patients with coughs, twitching or inflammation due to the rise of yang energy — the harder and more expansive type of force.

In simpler words, Hou Tsao powder does not necessarily work on a baby or a little child who makes excessive phlegm.

Coughing is a common symptom among newborn babies. Some careless parents may underestimate the illness and simply feed the baby with Chinese OTC herbal medicine like Hou Tsao powder without visiting the doctor.

In some unfortunate cases, those babies may not get better but instead turn worse — constant coughing, increased breathing rate, vomiting, face turning purple and so on. In more severe cases, patients might have to be sent to the intensive care unit and assisted by a mechanical ventilator for breathing.

What pediatricians would worry most is pertussis, a respiratory illness commonly known as a whooping cough and is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

In the current Hong Kong Childhood Immunisation Programme, infants are to receive vaccines at the ages of two, four, six and 18 months old.

However, children cannot be fully protected against pertussis before their first injection of the vaccine or the completion of the whole program. In fact, pertussis is so highly contagious that good personal hygiene alone cannot prevent it for sure.

Parents who see Hou Tsao powder as a natural elixir should bear in mind that Chinese OTC herbal medicines may serve as supplements but they cannot take the role of prescribed medicines.

If a child keeps coughing, parents should take the child to a doctor as soon as possible. It is especially crucial for children under six months old. Revisit the doctor if the condition does not get better, and be psychologically prepared that the child may have to be sent to an ICU.

Using the right kind of antibiotics is an effective and safe treatment that parents should not reject immediately upon doctors’ recommendation.

All in all, Hou Tsao powder should not be overrated because it does not do much to resolve natural secretions, not to mention pathological coughs and phlegm. When a child presents early symptoms, parents should not just count on OTC drugs but also watch carefully the patient’s condition and seek timely professional help.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 24

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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FHKAM (Paediatrics)

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