Most of the time, a cough doesn’t require treatment. A cough from a cold or the flu (influenza) will usually go away on its own. Sometimes, cough medicines can be useful if your cough is keeping you awake or interfering with your daytime activities.
Some types of cough should not be treated with cough medicines because the cough is helping to keep your lungs clear so you can breathe. Examples include a cough caused by smoking, emphysema, pneumonia, asthma, or chronic bronchitis.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. There are 2 types of OTC cough medicines: antitussives and expectorants. A common antitussive is dextromethorphan (some brand names: Triaminic Cold and Cough, Robitussin Cough, Vicks 44 Cough and Cold). The only expectorant available in OTC products is guaifenesin (2 brand names: Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion).
Antitussives are cough suppressants. They relieve your cough by blocking the cough reflex. Expectorants thin mucus. This may help your cough clear the mucus from your airway. Drinking extra fluids also helps keep mucus thin.
Dextromethorphan and guaifenesin are sometimes combined with each other (1 brand name: Robitussin DM). They are also available in combination with other medicines, such as pain relievers, decongestants, or antihistamines. These combination products (such as multi-symptom cold medicines) are meant to treat many symptoms at the same time. However, if your main symptom is cough, be careful of the drying effect of antihistamines and decongestants in combination medicines. This effect can make mucus thicker and harder to clear from the airways, which can make a cough worse.
Store all medicines up and away, out of reach and sight of young children. Keeping medicines in a cool, dry place will help prevent them from becoming less effective before their expiration dates. Do not store medicines in bathrooms or bathroom cabinets, which are often hot and humid.
Healthy adults don’t usually experience side effects from OTC cough medicines. But sometimes these medicines can cause irritability, sleepiness, or dizziness. Side effects may be a concern for people who have health problems, are elderly, or use cough medicines for long periods of time.
Cough medicine is often combined with decongestants, antihistamines, and/or pain relievers. If you take 1 of these combination medicines, it’s important to understand each of the active ingredients and the interactions they may have with other medicines you’re taking.
Talk to your doctor before taking cough medicine if you have any of the following symptoms:
Also, you should stop taking cough medicine and call your doctor if your cough lasts for more than 2 weeks, or if it keeps coming back.
Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff