What is the Best Cough Medicine?
A cough can range from being a mild, nagging symptom of a cold to something more severe that can interrupt your quality of life. Choosing the best cough medicine can help you find relief. Quite often, coughing is a symptom of the common cold or other respiratory illness, but in other cases a cough may be due to an underlying medical issue.
But why do we cough in the first place? Coughs are a natural body reflex that clears excessive mucus or foreign substances such as dust or smoke from the airways. Cough medications are used to relieve the constant cough that accompanies a respiratory illness and may be an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine or require a prescription.1
Why are You Coughing?
Coughs that result from inhaling dust or smoke often subside on their own when the cause is removed. But coughs that accompany an illness may be relieved by the right cough medicine. The following are common illnesses that may include coughing as a symptom:
The common cold is an upper respiratory infection cause by the rhinovirus and usually affects the nose, sinuses, and throat. While it is mainly harmless, excessive coughing can irritate the lungs and esophagus. Calming the cough may help you sleep better, so you can heal.
Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a viral infection of the respiratory system, and the accompanying cough often lasts a few days longer than the flu, itself. It is more intense than the common cold and attacks the nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs. Coughing that accompanies the flu may begin in the early stage of the illness but may onset later in the illness as the body attempts to expel excess mucus.
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. When bronchitis takes hold, usually resulting from a cold or flu, the lining of the tubes become inflamed and swollen, resulting in a dry, nagging cough. Certain types of cough medicine, such as expectorants, should not be used for this type of cough.
Covid 19 is a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. While some people may not notice symptoms, others may experience symptoms that range from mild to severe. Coughing is a common symptom, and while you are waiting for test results, an OTC cough medicine may provide relief. A dry cough may respond to cough suppressants while a wet cough may respond to an expectorant type of cough medicine.
The Classes of Cough Medicine
Certain cough medicines will suppress the cough reflex while others may work by loosening mucus. Finding the best cough medicine will depend on what type of cough you are experiencing. If you have bronchitis, you may require a prescription cough medicine.
Cough suppressants, also called antitussives, suppress the cough reflex.2 These are most favored to bring relief from a cough due to the common cold or flu. Dextromethorphan (DM) is the most common medication used and is found in a number of OTC cough medicines, including:
Expectorants are medicines that thin and loosen mucus in the bronchial tubes or chest so you can more easily expel it while coughing. The result is what some doctors refer to as a productive cough, so you soon cough less as the excess mucus is removed. These types of cough medicines may be helpful for a cough due to cold or flu that results in the feeling that something is “stuck” in the back of your throat or chest. Drinking extra fluids may also help thin mucus, and it may be beneficial to drink extra fluids while taking an expectorant. One common medication in this class is guaifenesin (pronounced gwai-feh-nuh-sn) and is found in these OTC cough medicines:
Combinations Cold and Flu Medications
Combination cold and flu medicines are often referred to as multi-symptom cold and flu relief, and they combine either antitussives or expectorants with other medicines like antihistamines or pain relief medications. These are used to suppress multiple symptoms that often accompany the common cold or flu. Some combination OTC medicines include:
- Vicks NyQuil and Dayquil (cough suppressant)
- Theraflu (cough suppressant)
- Robitussin Multi-Symptom Cough Cold + Flu (cough suppressant)
- Mucinex Fast-Max (cough suppressant and expectorant)
Prescription Cough Medicines
Sometimes a cough may be severe or chronic, creating a need for a different type of cough medicine. If this is the case, a doctor may diagnose the cause of the cough and provide a prescription for relief. The following are some common prescription medications for coughing:
- Benzonatate is an antitussive medication that numbs the airways to calm a cough
- Codeine is used to relax activity in an area of the brain that causes coughing and may be used to suppress a dry cough
- Albuterol is an inhaled medication that relaxes the smooth muscles of the airways to calm a cough
What is the Best Cough Medicine?
Choosing the best cough medicine depends on the reason for your cough and the type of cough. Most people find relief with common OTC cough suppressants and expectorants. Dry coughs respond best to antitussives and wet coughs benefit most from expectorants. Those with bronchitis should avoid expectorants. Most medical professionals agree that it is okay to take combination OTC medications to match your symptoms. Pregnant women and patients with heart disease or high blood pressure should avoid taking cough medicine until you ask your doctor. If you experience breathing issues or your cough is persistent for longer than a week, see your doctor to rule out other underlying health concerns. If you are unsure which medication is best for you, ask your health care professional for the best cough medicine for your situation.
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- De Blasio F, Virchow JC, Polverino M, et al. Cough management: a practical approach. Cough. 2011;7(1):7. Published 2011 Oct 10. doi:10.1186/1745-9974-7-7
- “Medical Definition of Cough Suppressant.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, 29 Mar. 2021, www.medicinenet.com/cough_suppressant/definition.htm.