Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options

There are few things more annoying than trying to get through the day with a nagging cough — unless it’s trying to get through the night with one. For either situation, there are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants that can help.

Path to improved health

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.

Should I treat my child’s cough?

Read “OTC Cough and Cold Medicines and My Child.”

What types of OTC cough medicines are available?

OTC medicines are medicines you can buy at a drugstore 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).

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. 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.

How can I safely store OTC cough medicines?

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.

Things to consider

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.

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 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.

Should I talk to my doctor before taking an OTC cough medicine?

Talk to your doctor before taking cough medicine if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever.
  • 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.

When to see a doctor

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.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Should I be concerned that my cough isn’t going away?
  • If I’m coughing, am I contagious?
  • Will antibiotics make my cough go away?
  • Is my cough related to smoking?
  • Is my cough related to allergies?


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