A Quick Review of OTC Cough Medicine

Is a hacking cough making you feel lousy? Don’t grab a random box of cough medicine off the pharmacy shelf. The role of cough medicine is to ease symptoms while your body heals.

As a glance at the drugstore shelves will show you, there are many, many brands of OTC cough medicines. But there are only three basic types:

  • Expectorants help thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. The ingredient guaifenesin is the only expectorant in the U.S., so look for it on the label if you need an expectorant.
  • Suppressants help cut the number of times you cough. The active ingredient listed is usually dextromethorphan (DM). Other cough suppressants include camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol.
  • Combination cough products have more than one active ingredient. They have both guaifenesin and dextromethorphan. Cough medicines may also contain ingredients to help coat and soothe the throat. Combination products may have medicines to ease other symptoms, that may include decongestants for stuffy nose, antihistamines for allergies or a runny nose, or painkillers. Choose a medicine that matches your symptoms.
  • Cough drops can also help relieve a cough and may ease a sore throat.

Many OTC cough medicines have multiple ingredients — expectorants and suppressants along with decongestants, antihistamines, or painkillers. Select products with only the medicines that treat your symptoms. If your symptom is only a cough, for instance, you don’t need a decongestant or painkiller.

If you need to treat multiple symptoms, check other medicines you take to see if they contain the same ingredients. Don’t take two medicines that have the same ingredients. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

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