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Fact Checked

How Does Mucinex Work?

You might not realize it, but right now, your body contains tons of mucus; it lines your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses, lungs, and digestive tracts at all times. While we tend to think of mucus as being gross and bothersome, it actually is responsible for several important jobs in our bodies, including protecting us from disease and germs by acting as a barrier, defending our bodies with antibodies and enzymes, and lubricating the sensitive hairs and cells that line our respiratory tract. Despite the fact that mucus is a part of our everyday lives, we never think about it until we have too much of it. If you’ve ever had a hacking cough, sore throat, and chest congestion, you know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re constantly coughing but still have stuff floating around in your lungs. With approximately half of all common cold associated with a cough, this is a common issue faced by millions of people each year. When you have an unproductive cough that you can’t get rid of, the one thing you want most - to get the excess mucus out of our lungs - is the one thing you can’t seem to do. Like many Americans, you may have tried a medication called Mucinex, which is designed to help you get the gunk out of your lungs and get your life back together.

Mucinex Overview

Thanks to its popular commercials featuring grumpy germs dressed in suits and ties, you’re likely familiar with Mucinex, at least in its over-the-counter form designed to work on coughs. What you might not know is that Mucinex is offered both over the counter and at prescription drug strength, and it comes in many different forms designed to address a variety of symptoms that often occur with a cough. Sold under the generic name guaifenesin, Mucinex is an expectorant that helps to loosen and thin congestion in your chest and throat. When mucus is thick and sticking stubbornly to the walls of your lungs and throat, it’s difficult to cough it up, so Mucinex works by loosening and thinning the mucus in your chest. Mucinex can be purchased as a cough expectorant only, as a cough expectorant combined with a decongestant (Mucinex D), and as a cough expectorant combined with antihistamines, cough suppressants, and decongestants (Mucinex DM). Mucinex also sells products that help control cold and flu and sinus issues as well. 

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The generic version of Mucinex, guaifenesin, is sold under many brand names, including:  Actifed CC Chesty Cough, Benadryl Chesty Forte, Bronchoril, G Bid, GG-Cen, Ganidin NR, Guaiatussin, Guaifenesin LA, Guiatuss, Humavent LA, Humibid, Mucinex, Mucinex Maximum Strength, Max Strength, Mucinex for Kids, Mucus Relief, Congestion relief, Nirolex Chesty Cough, Organidin NR, Pneumomist, Robafen, Robitussin Chest Congestion, Sorbutuss, Strepsils Chesty Cough, Touro EX, Tussin, and Tussin Expectorant.

Conditions Treated

Because there are so many different types of Mucinex, which conditions the medication treats depend on which type is purchased. Mucinex is capable of treating a variety of ailments ranging from a stubborn cough and chest congestion to cold and flu or sinus pressure issues. No matter which type of Mucinex you choose, all of the associated products include ingredients that loosen and thin mucus in order to fight chest congestion.  

Causes of Chest Congestion

We know that we need mucus to help our bodies function properly, but what determines how much mucus we produce? When our bodies are healthy, we produce the right amount of mucus needed to protect, moisten, and defend our airways. The mucus membranes that line your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses, and lungs are part of your body’s first defense against infection, keeping out dust, allergens, irritants, bacteria, and viruses. If we get an infection or are exposed to allergens or airborne pollution, our bodies can begin to produce too much mucus in an attempt to protect us from additional disease and irritation. 
When our bodies start to produce too much mucus, this is when congestion occurs. Mucus works best when it is at the normal levels in our body, so if it becomes too thick, dense, or dry, it is unable to do its job. When this happens, bacteria can start to grow, causing an infection. It’s at this stage of an illness that you’ll start to notice symptoms like chest congestion, more colds, a wet or hacking cough, and extra congestion in the mornings. Coughing is the way our bodies try to break up the mucus in our lungs and expel it.

How Mucinex Works

If you’ve ever taken Mucinex and experienced the relief it can provide, you might find yourself wondering, “How does Mucinex work?” Like so many questions in life, the answer is “It depends.” The many different types of Mucinex all include different active ingredients designed to treat the specific symptoms targeted by a given formula. When it comes to chest congestion specifically,  Mucinex works by thinning bronchial secretions and thinning the mucus in the air passages. As the medication starts to thin the mucus so it is easier to expel, it also works to loosen it. When mucus is thinner and looser  your cough is more likely to be productive because your body is able to expel the mucus more easily. As you continue to cough, your body will be able to clear phlegm and mucus from the lungs and airways, helping to reduce your symptoms and allowing you to breathe more easily. Mucinex is not an antibiotic, so it does not treat the cause of congestion by killing bacteria that may be causing the infection. Mucinex also does not treat the cold or flu, does not prevent airborne pollution, and does not treat allergies. However, it can alleviate the most bothersome symptoms associated with chest congestion. 

Cost

As already discussed, Mucinex comes in many different formulas to treat a wide range of symptoms. Mucinex can also be purchased in numerous forms, including an oral tablet, solution, syrup, packet, liquid, and nasal spray, depending on both the symptoms to be treated and the personal preference of the patient. Mucinex is relatively inexpensive even in its brand name forms, but for those looking to save more, the generic form of the drug, guaifenesin, may also be purchased. For comparison’s sake, the below chart demonstrates the costs of both Mucinex and guaifenesin in the form of 600 mg extended release oral tablets.
 
Approximate Costs of Mucinex and Guaifenesin
 
Mucinex
Guaifenesin
 
Per Pill
Pack of 20
Per Pill
Pack of 20
600 mg oral tablet
$0.98
$19.64
$0.57
$11.30

Benefits

The biggest benefit to using Mucinex is that the medication may help you feel better by thinning and loosening mucus in your body and leading to a productive cough. It’s also inexpensive and easy to find over the counter, so you won’t need to take a trip to a doctor’s office to get a prescription unless you need a stronger dose. Mucinex does not treat the root cause of chest congestion, so it will not kill bacteria that may be causing an infection, does not treat the cold or flu, does not prevent airborne pollution, and does not treat allergies, and it does not shorten the length of time that you’re likely to feel sick. It might help you breathe better, though!

Dosage

Due to the huge ranges in varieties, forms, and strengths of Mucinex, the best advice regarding dosage is generally to follow the directions listed on the package of the specific product that you buy. Regardless of the type of Mucinex you choose for your specific symptoms, make sure to drink plenty of water when taking it in order to stay hydrated and provide plenty of fluids for your body to help loosen the mucus. Extended release tablets should not be cut, crushed, or chewed and should be taken whole. Mucinex can be taken with or without food.

The standard adult dose for a cough depends on which type of formula is being used. The immediate release formula recommends a dose of 200 to 400 mg orally every 4 hours as needed, not to exceed 2400 mg per day. The sustained/extended release formula recommends an adult dose of 600 to 1200 mg every 12 hours, not to exceed 2400 mg/day.
Pediatric dosing recommendations are tricky. You must follow the package directions very closely when giving Mucinex to children, as the dose will vary based on their age and weight. In general, Mucinex should not be given to children under four years of age without speaking to a doctor or healthcare provider first. Using the immediate release formula, a dose for children between two and five years of age would be approximately 50 to 100 mg orally every 4 hours as needed, not to exceed 600 mg per day. Children between six and  eleven years of age would take approximately 100 to 200 mg orally every 4 hours as needed, not to exceed 1200 mg per day. Children aged 12 years or older may take approximately 200 to 400 mg orally every 4 hours as needed, not to exceed 2400 mg per day. 
The sustained/extended release formula comes with different recommendations for children. Using the sustained/extended release formula, children between two and five years of age may take approximately 300 mg orally every 12 hours, not to exceed 600 mg per day. Children between six and eleven years of age may take approximately 600 mg orally every 12 hours, not to exceed 1200 mg per day.  Children ages 12 years or older may take approximately 600 to 1200 mg orally every 12 hours, not to exceed 2400 mg per day. 

How to Use Mucinex

No matter which form or strength of Mucinex you choose, a few helpful tips always apply when  you take the medication. Whether you choose to take Mucinex with or without food, it is  recommended that you drink a full glass of water while taking it and extra fluids during your entire course of treatment. Without enough hydration, your body will not be able to properly loosen and thin the mucus in your airways. When using the table form of the medication, do not crush, chew, or break the tablet, as this can impact the medication’s effectiveness. Mucinex that includes a cough suppressant will stop you from coughing, but otherwise, you should expect your cough to continue as the medication works. Some people feel tired after taking Mucinex, while others feel more alert, so you should not drive or operate heavy machinery until you know how it affects you. You should see a doctor if your cough worsens or you get a fever, rash, or headache, or your cough lasts more than seven days.

Side Effects

The side effects associated with Mucinex are generally mild and usually do not require medical attention. Some people experience side effects when they first start taking Mucinex but find that they subside as their bodies adjust to the medication. Some side effects associated with Mucinex can be prevented, so if you are concerned about experiencing them, you should talk to your doctor about ways to prevent them. Common side effects of Mucinex include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach upset
  • Stomach pain
  • Less common side effects of Mucinex include:
  • Drowsiness
  • Skin rash
  • Persistent Headache

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to Mucinex or may need to contact the poison control center. Seek medical advice or medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Swelling, itching, or redness of the face
  • Tongue swelling
  • Difficulty talking or breathing
  • Skin rash or hives

Precautions for Pregnant and Nursing Women

Because Mucinex is an FDA-designated Class C drug for pregnant women, the full effects of the medication on unborn babies have not been conclusively studied, and use during pregnancy is recommended only when the benefit outweighs the risk. Existing data does not show an association between Mucinex and birth defects, but there is no controlled data on human pregnancy currently available. Because of the lack of data surrounding Mucinex’s effect on unborn children, it is recommended that you talk to your doctor before using the medication, even though it may be purchased over the counter. Although no studies exist that confirm that Mucinex passes through breast milk, the manufacturer recommends that due to the potential for serious adverse reactions in nursing infants, the mother should make a decision to  either discontinue nursing if using Mucinex or discontinue use of the drug. Nursing mothers should speak to their doctors prior to taking Mucinex. 

Deciding to Take Mucinex

Although it is offered over the counter, Mucinex is not for everyone. The medication may not be suitable for people with a persistent cough due to asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or smoking, or who have a cough producing excessive amounts of phlegm. Pregnant and nursing mothers should use caution when using Mucinex and should speak to their doctors prior to taking the medication.

Published April 6th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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