Choosing the Right Over-the-Counter Cough Medicine

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Two different types of over-the-counter cough medicine are expectorants and suppressants , each of which works differently. The cough medicine (or combination medicine) that is right for you depends on the type of cough you are experiencing, the combination of your symptoms, your general health, and other medicines you may be taking.

Over-the-counter cough medicine can provide much-needed relief. But if you've been coughing for several days or have a bad cough, see your doctor to see if you need another medicine or other treatment.

Alex Dos Diaz / Get Drug Information

Expectorants

Expectorants thin the mucus to make it easier to expel the mucus from the lungs. These medications are helpful when you have severe nasal congestion and it is difficult for you to get rid of it yourself.

When mucus enters the lungs, it can contribute to the development of bacterial infections, including pneumonia. Coughing can clear mucus and help prevent it, so an expectorant may also help prevent infection .

How does pneumonia happen?

Guaifenesin is the only expectorant drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is available as a generic drug and in several brand-name products, including:

Suppressors

Cough suppressants are a class of cough medications that help stop coughing. The medical community is debating the efficacy and usefulness of these drugs.

First, there is little evidence that they actually work. A growing body of research shows that they are ineffective, especially in children. They can also have serious side effects that are not worth the risk for .

Since coughing is your body's way of getting rid of foreign substances in your lungs, it is not always helpful to stop coughing. If you decide to use a cough suppressant, know that it is best to use these medications only at night when you have trouble sleeping.

Some common over-the-counter cough suppressants include:

  • Delsim
  • Robitussin for cough
  • Dextromethorphan (generic)

Considerations

Cough medicines are not safe for everyone, so it's best to know what might prevent you or a loved one from taking them before heading to the pharmacy.

To your health

Before taking over-the-counter cough medicine, talk to your doctor if:

  • Smoke
  • Coughing up a lot of phlegm
  • You have a history of asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or other breathing problems.
  • You are pregnant, trying to conceive, or breastfeeding.
  • You are taking or have recently stopped taking a medicine classified as a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor.

Soluble granules are the readily available formulation of some over-the-counter cough medicines. If you have kidney disease or are on a low magnesium diet, check with your doctor before taking the granules.

If you have phenylketonuria (PKU), be sure to check the ingredients in the dissolving granules to see if they contain aspartame.

In children

Healthcare professionals do not recommend over-the-counter cough medicine for children under 6 years of age due to the risk of accidental poisoning. Also, the efficacy of these drugs in young children has not been tested.

Caution: medications for multiple symptoms

Cough medications are commonly used in multi-symptom cold and flu medications and are sold under a variety of brand names. Most of these products contain the same ingredients. Always check the composition of the medicines you are taking. It is important not to increase the dose of your medicine by getting it from more than one product.

Side effects

Possible side effects of cough medicines include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Threw up
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness / lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Nervousness / anxiety

If you have serious or persistent side effects from these medications, contact your doctor.

Call your doctor immediately if you develop a rash while taking dextromethorphan.

Get the word of drug information

It is important to know when a cough could be a sign of a more serious problem. Sometimes a persistent cough can be a sign that you are not breathing as well as you should. This is especially true for children. If you are concerned about a cough or a child's cough, see your doctor .

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