The Different Types of Cough Medicines: What Works Best for Your Symptoms?

Published June 8th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Coughing is a natural reflex that helps clear your airways of mucus and other particles. It can be caused by a number of things, such as the common cold, the flu, or asthma.

Cough medicines are medications that are often used to help relieve your coughing and there are a number of different types of cough medicines available over-the-counter and by prescription.

In this article, we will discuss the different types of cough medicines and what works best for each type of symptom.

What are cough medicines?

Cough medicines are medications that are used to treat the symptoms of a cough with both over-the-counter and prescription cough medicines available.

Cough medicines work by suppressing the cough reflex or by thinning mucus. When you cough, your body is trying to get rid of something that is irritating your throat or airway.

You need to start taking cough medicines as soon as possible after your cough starts in order for them to be effective and to give your body the best chance of healing an irritated throat or becoming decongested.

However, if you have a persistent cough that lasts for weeks or even months which is called an acute cough and you will need to take medication to help relieve the symptoms.

There are two different types of coughs: a dry cough and a wet cough. A dry cough, also known as a nonproductive cough, is one where there is no mucus or phlegm being produced.

A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, is where mucus or phlegm is produced when you cough.

Cough medicines can help relieve the symptoms of both types of coughs and which cough you have can determine which cough medication you need to use to treat it.

What are the different types of cough medicines?

The two main types of cough medicines are suppressants and expectorants and we will detail them both below.

Suppressants

Suppressants, which are also known as antitussives, work by suppressing the cough reflex. They do this by acting on the cough center in the brain.

These types of cough medicines are best for dry, hacking, nonproductive coughs.

Suppressants are not supposed to be used if you have a productive cough because they can cause the mucus to build up in your chest and lead to respiratory infections.

Expectorants

Expectorants work by thinning the mucus so that it can be cleared from your lungs more easily. These types of cough medicines are best for productive, wet coughs.

They also help to break up the congestion in your chest. Expectorants are available over-the-counter and by prescription.

You can also have medications that combine both a suppressant and an expectorant in one medication.

They can also include painkillers, decongestants, and antihistamines which can all be used to help treat different symptoms.

What are the main reasons for a cough?

The most common reason for a cough is the common cold or influenza, which is also known as the flu.

Other causes of a cough can include bronchitis or an upper respiratory tract infection that can be caused by a viral infection or bacterial infection.

The common cold symptoms are characterized by a runny nose, sore throat, and rarely fever.

The flu is similar to the common cold but also includes muscle aches and pains, fatigue, nausea, and fever is common.

Bronchitis is an infection of your bronchial tubes that causes them to swell and produce mucus. A viral upper respiratory tract infection can cause a cough as well as a sore throat, runny nose, and congestion.

Cigarette smoking is also a common cause of a cough as well as environmental irritants such as dust, pollen, or fumes.

If you have GERD, which is gastroesophageal reflux disease, you may also experience a cough which is because stomach acid can come up into your throat and irritate it.

Allergies, asthma, pneumonia, and postnasal drip can also cause a cough. If you have a cough that lasts for more than three weeks, it could be a sign of something more serious and you need to see your doctor.

Cough medicines can help to relieve the following cough symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Sore throat or scratchy throat
  • Congestion, whether it is chest congestion or nasal or sinus congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bad flavor in the mouth caused by mucus or phlegm
  • Laryngitis
  • Stuffy nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Mucus
  • Phlegm

What are the best over-the-counter cough medicines?

The best over-the-counter cough medicine is going to depend on your individual symptoms. If you have a dry, hacking cough, then a suppressant is going to be your best option.

However, if you have a productive, wet cough, then an expectorant is going to be your best option.

cough suppressant image

Also, it will depend on the source of your cough.

For example, if you have a cold then a cold medication will probably work best; whereas if you have the flu accompanied by a fever then something that will help with your fever and treat your cough will probably work best. Some of the best over-the-counter cough medicines include:

Pseudoephedrine

Medicines that contain pseudoephedrine act as a decongestant and can help to relieve a blocked nose.

The most common medicine containing pseudoephedrine is Sudafed. Some of the side effects of taking it include anxiety, drowsiness, restlessness, increased blood pressure, and jitteriness.

Pseudoephedrine is not suitable for everyone so it’s important that you read the label carefully before taking it.

It’s also important to note that pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamine so it is important to keep it out of the reach of children and you may need to show an ID in some states to purchase it.

Guaifenesin

Guaifenesin is a cold medicine that is used as an expectorant that helps to thin the excess mucus so that it can be cleared from your lungs more easily.

It is available over-the-counter and the most common brand that contains it is Mucinex.

It is often taken with other medications like pseudoephedrine and its effectiveness is questioned as drinking lots of fluids or even hot tea may have similar effects as a cough remedy.

Dextromethorphan

Dextromethorphan is an over-the-counter cough suppressant that is available over-the-counter and it’s one of the most common ingredients found in cough medicines that works by suppressing the cough reflex.

The most common brand that contains it is Robitussin and Vicks Dayquil.

Chlorpheniramine

Chlorpheniramine is an antihistamine that can be used to treat runny noses and sneezing. It’s available over-the-counter and the most common brands that contain it are Contac and Tylenol Cold & Allergy.

Clemastine

Clemastine is an antihistamine that can be used to treat runny noses and sneezing. It’s available over-the-counter and the most common brands are Clamist, Taregyl, and Tavegyl.

Pain killers

Taking a pain reliever such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can be effective in treating the symptoms associated with the common cold or flu-like fever and muscle aches.

Although they do not treat your cough directly, they are often taken in combination with other drugs.

Please note that many medicines are combination products and can combine more than one of these drugs to best help your symptoms.

Always read the label to see the active ingredients in any over-the-counter medication to ensure it is treating the right symptoms for you.

What are the best prescription cough medicines?

If over-the-counter medications do not stop your cough, you may need to see your doctor to get a prescription medication.

Some of the most popular active ingredients in prescription medications include:

Codeine

Codeine is an opioid cough suppressant and antihistamine that is related to morphine and it works by depressing the cough reflex. It is often given in combination with other drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Hydrocodone

Hydrocodone is another narcotic that suppresses the cough reflex and it’s available in prescription cough medicines although sometimes it is combined with acetaminophen, chlorpheniramine, and homatropine. Chlorpheniramine is an antihistamine while homatropine can be used for sinus and respiratory disorders.

Benzonatate

Benzonatate is a local anesthetic that is used as a cough suppressant and it works by numbing the nerves that are responsible for the cough reflex. It’s available in capsules or liquids and it’s often given when you have chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

Promethazine

Promethazine is an antihistamine that is used to treat allergies and it is also a sedative that can help with nausea and vomiting. It works by depressing the central nervous system and is widely available as a prescription. There are also drugs that couple promethazine with codeine too. Promethazine can not be given to children under the age of 2 as it can cause fatal respiratory depression.

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What are the side effects of cough medicines?

Most cough medicines are considered safe when taken as directed. However, there can be some adverse effects associated with them and will depend on which drug you are taking. The most common side effects of cough medicine include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness

It’s important that you speak to your doctor if you experience any of these side effects as they could be a sign of an allergic reaction.

Always read the label before taking any medication and if you have any questions, please consult your healthcare professional.

Summary

Cough medicines are available both over-the-counter and as a prescription and can sometimes contain more than one active ingredient.

The best way to determine which cough medicine is right for you is to consult your healthcare professional for medical advice.

Be sure to read the label carefully before taking any medication and if you experience any side effects, please speak to your doctor.

If you have any more questions about cough medicines and or which one is right for you, please talk to your doctor or healthcare professional.

References and sources:

U.S. News & World Report 

SingleCare 

WebMD

GoodRX Health 

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