Before treating a cough, recognize there are different types of coughs. A chesty, or congested cough, is loose and is accompanied by a buildup of mucus or phlegm in the lungs. Cough expectorants help loosen the mucus so that when you do cough, it can be more productive. There are also coughs where no mucus or phlegm is present. Both types of coughs can be treated with an antitussive, or cough suppressant, to reduce the amount of coughing. OTCsafety.org also has information available about the safe use of cough expectorants.
Many of us are exposed to several different pollutants in the air such as dust, exhaust fumes, and smoke on a daily basis. When you develop a dry cough, it is your body’s way of clearing pollutants and other irritants from your airways. Cough suppressants, also known as antitussives, are medicines that are used to temporarily control or quiet a cough due to a cold, inhaled irritants, or minor throat and bronchial irritation.
Cough suppressing medicines, like all over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, contain certain active ingredients that make the medicines work in the human body. The active ingredients in cough suppressants work by temporarily reducing the cough reflex which, in turn, makes you feel the need to cough less. A cough suppressant medicine’s active ingredients, including how much of the substance is in each dose, are listed first on the Drug Facts label.
Cough suppressant active ingredients are available in both oral and topical medicines. Oral cough suppressants such as pills, liquids, and tablets are taken by mouth and absorbed through the blood stream. Topical cough suppressants, like ointments and steam vaporizers, are inhaled after being applied to the chest or released into the air by steam. Lozenges are also considered topical cough suppressants because they are not swallowed whole. Lozenges are slowly dissolved in the mouth and absorbed through the throat.
Cough suppressant active ingredients include:
Often times a cough is just one of many symptoms that you might be experiencing. There are some medicines that treat a cough and other symptoms that can sometimes accompany a cough such as chest congestion; nasal congestion; runny nose or sneezing; or minor aches, pains, and fever.
Be aware that young people may abuse cough medicines containing dextromethorphan to get high. Abusers may take up to 50 times the recommended dose to get high. For more information about this type of substance abuse, visit StopMedicineAbuse.org.
*Not all products sold under a brand contain the same ingredients. Please read the OTC Drug Facts label carefully for active ingredient information for specific products.
- Always read the OTC Drug Facts label carefully. The label tells you everything you need to know about the medicine including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should take, and when you should not take the product.
- Do not take more than the maximum number of doses recommended on the product’s label in a 24-hour period.
- Topical cough suppressant lozenges should be placed in the mouth and dissolved slowly. Do not swallow a lozenge whole.
- A lingering cough may be a sign of a serious condition. If your cough lasts more than one week or is accompanied by fever, rash, or a persistent headache, you should contact a doctor or another healthcare professional.
- Cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan may interact with certain prescription medicines. You should not use a dextromethorphan-containing medicine if you are currently taking a prescription monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), or certain drugs for depression, or psychiatric or emotional conditions. Contact a doctor or other healthcare professional with any questions.
- Products containing camphor or menthol in an ointment or cream form should be applied to the throat and chest in a thick layer. The area may be covered by a dry cloth, but clothing should be left loose to allow the vapors to reach the nose and mouth.
- Talk to a healthcare professional before using an oral or topical cough suppressant if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Do not use a cough suppressants for chronic cough due to smoking, asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema, or if your cough is accompanied by excessive congestion (mucus), unless a doctor tells you to.
All of the tips for the safe use of OTC cough suppressants in this section also apply to children. But like most OTC medicines, there are some additional considerations when it comes to treating kids.
Additional tips by ages—Be sure to read the entire list for medicines that may or may not be labeled for your child:
Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.
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