How to Choose the Right Over-the-Counter Cough Medication

In This Article

The two different types of over-the-counter (OTC) cough medications are expectorants and suppressants, each of which works differently. Which cough medication (or combination medication) is right for you depends on the type of cough you're experiencing, the totality of your symptoms, your overall health, and what other medications you may be taking.

OTC cough medications can provide much-needed relief. But if you've been coughing for several days or your cough is severe, contact your healthcare provider to see if you need a different medication or another type of treatment entirely.

Expectorants

Expectorants help thin mucus so you can cough it out of your lungs more easily. These medications are useful when you have thick congestion and are having a hard time expelling it on your own.

When mucus sits in your lungs, it can contribute to bacterial infections, including pneumonia. Coughing can clear out the mucus and help prevent this, so it's possible that an expectorant could help prevent infection as well.

2:29

How Pneumonia Occurs

The drug guaifenesin is the only expectorant that's approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It's available as a generic drug and in multiple brand-name products, including:

Suppressants

Cough suppressants are a class of cough medicine that help you stop coughing. The medical community debates the effectiveness and usefulness of these medicines.

First, there's little evidence that they actually work. A growing amount of research has found they are not effective, especially in children. In addition, they can have serious side effects, making them not worth the risk.

Because coughing is your body's way of clearing foreign substances in the lungs, it is not always a good idea to stop a cough. If you decide to use a cough suppressant, know these medications are best used only at night when you are having trouble sleeping.

Some common cough suppressants available over the counter include:

  • Delsym
  • Robitussin Cough
  • Dextromethorphan (generic)

Considerations

Cough medicines aren't safe for everyone, so it's best to be aware of what may preclude you or a loved one from taking such a product before heading to the drugstore.

Your Health

Talk to your doctor before taking OTC cough medicines if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have had a cough with large amounts of phlegm
  • Have a history of asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or other breathing problems
  • Are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding
  • Are taking or recently stopped taking a drug classified as a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhitibitor

Dissolving granules are an available formulation of some brands of OTC cough medications. If you have kidney disease or are on a low-magnesium diet, talk to your doctor before taking granules.

If you have phenylketonuria (PKU), be sure to check the ingredients of the dissolving granules to see if they contain aspartame.

In Children

Doctors don't recommend OTC cough medicines for children younger than 6 due to the risk of accidental poisoning. Additionally, these medications haven't been proven effective in young children.

Caution: Multi-Symptom Medications

Cough medications are commonly used in multi-symptom cold and flu drugs and are sold under many different brand names. Most of these products contain the same few ingredients. Always check the ingredients of the medications you're taking. It's important not to double-up on a drug by getting it from more than one product.

Side Effects

Potential side effects of cough medicines include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Nervousness/restlessness

If you have side effects from these medications that are severe or don't go away, contact your doctor.

Call your doctor immediately if you develop a rash while taking dextromethorphan.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to be aware of when a cough could be a sign of a more serious problem. Sometimes a persistent cough can be a sign that you're not breathing as well as you should be. This is especially true in children. If you're concerned about your cough or your child's, contact your healthcare provider

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. Relieving a Cough. Updated September 5, 2018.

  2. Wark P. Bronchitis (acute)BMJ Clin Evid. 2015;2015:1508.

  3. Smith SM, Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications for acute cough in children and adults in community settingsCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(11):CD001831. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001831.pub5

  4. MedlinePlus. Guaifenesin. Updated February 18, 2020.

  5. MedlinePlus. Dextromethorphan. Updated February 18, 2020.

  6. American Academy of Family Physicians. OTC Cough and Cold Medicines and My Child. Updated May 22, 2019.

Additional Reading