Expectorants and Treating COPD

Does this common cough medicine help in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Woman blowing nose
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Expectorants are a type of cough medicine that thin and loosen mucus in your lungs making a cough more productive. Unlike cough suppressants, which decrease a cough, expectorants make you cough more.

Expectorants are sometimes used in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. If you have COPD, here's what you need to know.

How Expectorants Work

Expectorants, such as guaifenesin – the generic name for Mucinex and is also found in cough medicines like Robitussin DM – are designed to thin secretions in the airways so that they can be more effectively coughed up, and by lubricating the airway passages.

This helps to rid your airways of debris and bacteria, which can lower the risk of infections or help the body recover from infections. While this should, in theory, aid in the treatment of COPD, there's not much proof they are effective. There is some evidence that they help in cases of chronic bronchitis, but that is quite minimal. 

Other Cough Medicines

While expectorants may not offer much relief from COPD, there are different types of cough medications that work in different ways and may be helpful. These include

Mucolytics: Another medication that works to break up thick secretions is mucolytics. These work differently from expectorants and are often used to treat lung diseases but not minor respiratory conditions. Mucolytics, such as acetylcysteine, can offer significant symptom relief in patients with COPD.

Antitussives: Cough suppressants, or antitussives, help to decrease the urge to cough and are useful in a dry cough that keeps you up at night, but do little to help remove the infection and foreign particles from your lungs. 

Antihistamines and decongestants: These medications do not work on a cough itself, but help to decrease mucus formation, which results in less mucus to cough up.

Coping with a Cough

Whether you have COPD or just a nagging cough, here are some steps to take to help you cope.

Get an accurate diagnosis: The first and most important step in coping with a cough is to determine the cause. This is especially important if you have a persistent cough, which could be indicative of a larger problem, such as lung cancer. Keep in mind that even people who never smoked can, and do, develop lung cancer. In fact, lung cancer in "never smokers" is the 7th leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

Avoid things that aggravate your cough: From secondhand smoke to wood smoke, to exposure to cold temperatures, eliminating things that worsen your cough can go a long way toward helping you feel better.

Know the cause: There is a reason that you get a runny nose with a cold or a cough with pneumonia. In other words, remember that coughing has a purpose. Just as we've learned that a low-grade fever helps fight off infections and is best left alone, sometimes the absolute best treatment for a cough is no treatment. 

Try a teaspoon of honey: If you're hoping to suppress your cough – at least a little – you can try a teaspoon of honey. In addition to soothing your throat, honey may have some anti-infection benefits as well.

Take the right medication: Your doctor may prescribe something for your coughs, such as a mucolytic medication for chronic bronchitis, or a prescription cough medication if you are unable to sleep with a cold. Use your medication as directed and let your doctor know if it does not work.

Pamper yourself: Many of the home remedies for a cough and colds don't really work to improve a cough but can make you feel better because you're being pampered. Take time to heal when you are ill. Get enough sleep and follow a healthy diet. With the multitude of medicines available it seems we've forgotten that our bodies work very well, and most of the time all we need to do is give them a chance.

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Article Sources

  • Poole, P., Chong, J., and C. Cates. Mucolytic agents versus placebo for chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015. 7:CD001287.
  • Rubin, B. Mucolytics, expectorants, and mucokinetic medications. Respiratory Care. 2007. 52(7):859-65.