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Choosing Over the Counter Cough Medications

Cough Medicine - Expectorants and Cough Suppressants


Updated July 02, 2014

When you get sick and have an irritating cough, you probably just want it to go away. There are dozens of medications on the pharmacy shelves that promise to quiet the cough, but do they actually work?

There are two different types of over the counter cough medications - expectorants and suppressants. They work very differently and which one you take depends on the type of cough you are experiencing.


Expectorants are a class of cough medicine that help to get congestion out of your lungs. They thin the mucous and help you cough it out more easily. Expectorants are useful when you have thick congestion and you can't cough it up on your own. Because they help make your cough more productive, expectorants can help prevent illnesses such as pneumonia.

Some common expectorants available over the counter include:


Cough suppressants are a class of cough medicine that help you stop coughing. There has been some debate about the efficacy of cough suppressants. Because coughing is a natural response to foreign substances in the lungs, it is not always a good idea to suppress the cough. Some doctors have found they are not effective, especially in children. However, many people still feel cough suppressants are necessary. If you decide to use cough suppressants, they are best used only at night when you are having trouble sleeping.

Some common cough suppressants available over the counter include:

Top Over the Counter Cold and Flu Medications

Cough medications are commonly used in multi-symptom cold and flu medications and are sold under many different brand names. Always check the labels of the medications you are taking to see what the ingredients are and what they do.

If you have been coughing for several days or your cough is severe, contact your health care provider to see if you need a different treatment or type of medication.

To learn more about coughs, why they occur and when you need to be concerned, see:


Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options Familydoctor.org Feb 12. American Academy of Family Physicians. 23 Aug 13.

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