What types of OTC cough medicines are available?
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy without a doctor's prescription. 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 (some brand names: Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion)..
How do OTC cough medicines work?
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.
Dextromethorphan and guaifenesin are sometimes combined with each other (one brand name: Robitussin DM). They are also available in combination with other drugs, such as pain relievers, decongestants or antihistamines. These combination products (such as multi-symptom cold medicines) are meant to treat many symptoms at once. 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.
Should I treat my cough?
Most of the time, a cough doesn’t require treatment. A cough from a cold or the flu 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.
Should I treat my child's cough?
What are some common side effects of OTC cough medicines?
Healthy adults don’t usually experience side effects from OTC cough medicines. But sometimes they 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.
Can OTC cough medicines cause problems with any other medicines I take?
Cough medicine is often combined with decongestants, antihistamines, and/or pain relievers. If you take one 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.
In general, try to avoid combination products that treat many different symptoms at once. For example, you might use guaifenesin (some brand names: Mucinex, Robitussin) for a cough. Don’t use guaifenesin combined with other active ingredients like decongestants, antihistamines, or acetaminophen unless you are certain you aren’t taking any other medicines that also contain those ingredients. This will help to keep you from taking too much of one of these ingredients.
Are there other reasons I should talk to my doctor before taking a cough medicine?
Talk to your doctor before taking cough medicine if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Cough that lasts for more than a few weeks (called chronic or long-lasting cough)
- Wheezing when you cough or breathe. This may mean you need a prescription medicine to treat inflammation (swelling) and narrowing of your airways.
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