Most of the time, the cough does not require treatment. A cough from a cold or the flu will usually go away on their own. Sometimes cough medicines can be helpful if your cough keeps you awake or if it interferes with your daytime activities.
Some types of cough should not be treated with specific medications for this problem because the cough helps keep your lungs clean so you can breathe. Examples include a cough caused by smoking, emphysema, pneumonia, asthma or chronic bronchitis.
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What types of over-the-counter cough medicines are available?
Over-the-counter medications are those medications that can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription. There are 2 types of over-the-counter cough medicines: cough suppressants 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 over-the-counter products is guaifenesin (2 brand names: Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion).
How do over-the-counter cough medicines work?
Cough suppressants are cough suppressants. These relieve the cough by blocking the cough reflex. The expectorants dilute the mucus. This can help your cough to eliminate mucus from the airways. Drinking extra fluids also helps keep the mucus diluted.
Dextromethorphan and guaifenesin sometimes combine with each other (1 brand name: Robitussin DM). They are also available in combination with other medications such as analgesics, decongestants or antihistamines. These combination products (such as medicines for multiple cold symptoms) are designed to treat many symptoms at the same time. However, if your main symptom is cough, be careful with the drying effect of antihistamines and decongestants in combination medications. This effect can make the mucus thicker and harder to remove from the airways, which can make the cough worse.
How can I safely store over-the-counter cough medicines?
Store all medications out of the reach and sight of young children. Keeping the medications in a cool and dry place will help prevent them from being less effective before the expiration dates. Do not store medications in bathrooms or in bathroom cabinets that are often neither fresh nor dry.
Aspects to consider
Healthy adults, in general, do not suffer the side effects of over-the-counter cough medicines. But sometimes these medications can cause irritability, drowsiness or dizziness. Side effects can be a concern for people who have health problems, are elderly or use cough medicine for long periods of time.
Can over-the-counter cough medications cause problems with any other medications you take?
Cough medications are often combined with decongestants, antihistamines and/or analgesics. If you take 1 of these medications combined, it is important to understand each of the active ingredients and the interactions they may have with other medications you are taking.
Should I talk to my doctor before taking an over-the-counter cough medicine?
Talk to your doctor before using an over-the-counter cough medicine if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Cough that lasts more than a few weeks (called chronic or long-lasting cough).
- I gasp when I cough or breathe. This may mean that you need a prescription medication to treat inflammation (swelling) and narrowing of the airways.