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Cough Medicines, Nonprescription

Choosing a cough medicine can be confusing. Many different medicines for coughs are available without a prescription. There are different types of cough medicines for different kinds of coughs. A cough can be dry and hacking. Or it may be deeper, even painful sometimes, and the cough may bring up mucus or phlegm. Healthcare providers call this deeper cough a productive cough because it produces mucus. When you are buying nonprescription cough medicine, you need to decide: Do you need to get relief from the cough so that you are coughing less? Or do you need something to help you loosen the mucus? Or both?

What are expectorants?

If you need to loosen and cough up mucus, an expectorant medicine might help. Expectorants are cough medicines that may help to keep the mucus thin and bring up mucus from the lungs when you cough. This can relieve chest congestion and make it easier to breathe. The drug used most often as an expectorant is guaifenesin. You can buy many forms of this medicine without a prescription. It comes in capsules, tablets, and syrups. If you are a smoker or have asthma or chronic bronchitis, check with your healthcare provider before using an expectorant.

What are cough suppressants?

Cough suppressants are medicines that lessen the urge to cough. They may give relief from a dry, hacking cough. They may lessen your urge to cough. Cough suppressants are not usually recommended if your cough is wet sounding and produces mucus.

The active ingredient in most cough suppressants is dextromethorphan. Cough medicines with the initials DM in the name have dextromethorphan in them. You can buy many forms of this medicine without a prescription. Always follow the instructions on the label to avoid overusing the medicine and having possible side effects.

What should I watch out for while taking these medicines?

  • If you choose a cough syrup with an antihistamine in it, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), know that it may make you feel sleepy. Antihistamines can also make the mucus dry and hard to cough up.
  • Avoid using a cough suppressant if you have a cough with a lot of mucus that needs to be coughed up.
  • Drink a lot of fluids to help make the mucus thin and easier to cough up.
  • If you are pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider before you take any medicines.
  • If you have a medical condition such as heart disease or diabetes, ask your pharmacist which cough syrups are safe to use with your other medicines.
  • Do not give a child under age 4 any cough and cold medicines unless your healthcare provider has said it's OK. Talk with your healthcare provider about this.
  • Expectorants and cough suppressants should be used with caution in older adults. Use them only when recommended by your healthcare provider.

If taken according to directions, these medicines are very safe and have few side effects. However, if you take too much, you may have symptoms such as a rash, lightheadedness, headache, nausea, and vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms, tell your provider.

Many nonprescription cough and cold medicines contain several ingredients to treat many symptoms. Read the labels and buy only the ingredients that you need. If you are not sure which medicine is best, ask your pharmacist.

These suggestions are intended for a new cough that you have had for a short time without other serious symptoms, such as shortness of breath or coughing up blood.

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You also have shortness of breath.
  • You are coughing up blood.
  • You do not know what is causing your cough.
  • Your cough has lasted more than a week without getting better.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File drug4260.htm Release 13/2010

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