Most of the time, a cough doesn’t require treatment. A cough from a cold or the flu (influenza) will usually go away on its own. Sometimes, cough medicines can be useful if your cough is keeping you awake or interfering with your daytime activities.
Some types of cough should not be treated with cough medicines, because the cough is helping to keep your lungs clear so you can breathe. Examples include a cough caused by smoking, emphysema, pneumonia, asthma, or chronic bronchitis.
OTC medicines are medicines you can buy at a drugstore without a prescription from your doctor. There are 2 types of OTC cough medicines: antitussives and expectorants.
Antitussives are cough suppressants. They relieve your cough by blocking the cough reflex. Expectorants thin mucus. This may help your cough clear the mucus from your airway. Drinking extra fluids also helps keep mucus thin.
Dextromethorphan and guaifenesin are sometimes combined with each. They are also available in combination with other medicines, such as pain relievers, decongestants, or antihistamines. These combination products (such as multi-symptom cold medicines) are meant to treat many symptoms at the same time. However, if your main symptom is cough, be careful of the drying effect of antihistamines and decongestants in combination medicines. This effect can make mucus thicker and harder to clear from the airways, which can make a cough worse.
Can OTC cough medicines cause problems with any other medicines I take?
Cough medicine is often combined with decongestants, antihistamines, and/or pain relievers. If you take 1 of these combination medicines, it’s important to understand each of the active ingredients and the interactions they may have with other medicines you’re taking.
Should I talk to my doctor before taking an OTC cough medicine?
Talk to your doctor before taking cough medicine if you have any of the following symptoms:
Shortness of breath.
Cough that lasts for more than a few weeks (called chronic or long-lasting cough).
Wheezing when you cough or breathe.
This may mean you need a prescription medicine to treat inflammation (swelling) and narrowing of your airways.