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Cough Medicine and Cough Syrups Introduction
Three types of cough medicines are available OTC for the temporary relief of cough caused by a cold or bronchitis. These cough medicines include cough suppressants, oral expectorants, and topical (externally applied) drugs.
Who Should Not Take Cough Medicine or Cough Syrup?
Often, doctors believe that a cough from a cold should not be treated unless it is keeping you up at night or interfering with your activities. Coughing up mucus may help keep your lungs clear. This is especially true if you smoke or have asthma or emphysema.
Dextromethorphan can interact with many medicines including antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil (paroxetine), Lexapro (escitalopram), or Zoloft (sertraline); serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as venlafaxine (Effexor) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). Do not take dextromethorphan if you are on other medication unless cleared by your doctor. In addition, some combination cold and cough medicines contain decongestants. If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, avoid taking these drugs. Decongestants can raise blood pressure.
The most important key is to understand how the cough syrup or cough medicine works. That includes knowing what the side effects are. Then talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your cough or cough medicine. Trust your doctor to make the best decision with your overall health in mind.
Which Cough Syrups and Cough Medicines Suppress Coughing?
Cough suppressants relieve your cough by blocking the cough reflex. Dextromethorphan, or DM, is the most common cough suppressant. Dextromethorphan does not have the pain-relieving and addictive properties of codeine, a narcotic cough suppressant that requires a doctor's prescription.
If you have a dry, hacking cough, dextromethorphan may give you relief. Generally, these cough syrups and cough medicines are not used to suppress a cough where you cough up mucus. A productive cough helps clear secretions and mucus from the airways. Talk to your doctor if you have a productive cough that's preventing you from sleeping.
How Do Expectorants Stop a Cough?
An expectorant is a drug that thins mucus so you can cough it up easier. While many experts say that drinking water is the most effective way to loosen mucus, you can also use such medications as guaifenesin to thin mucus so it can be cleared from the airway. Clearing thick mucus from the airways can decrease coughing. The most frequent side effect of expectorants is nausea and vomiting.
Do Topical Cough Medicines Stop Coughs?
Camphor and menthol are commonly used topical cough medicines. These natural, aromatic cough medicines are rubbed on the throat and the chest. The anesthetic action of their vapors is thought to ease coughing and soothe stuffiness from a cold.
Camphor and menthol cough medicines are also available for steam inhalation. Menthol is available in lozenges and in compressed tablets.
What's a Combination Cold and Cough Medicine?
Many OTC cold and cough syrups and cough medicines contain a cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) plus an expectorant (guaifenesin) along with other cold medicines and pain relievers. The combination cold and cough medicine may contain an antihistamine, a decongestant, and a pain reliever in addition to the cough suppressant and/or expectorant. The combination of medicines may give optimal relief if you have multiple cold symptoms, such as body aches, coughs, and congestion. The downside of the combination cold medicines is that you may be taking medication that you don't need, depending on your symptoms.
WebMD Medical Reference
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Common Cold: Treatment."
Mayo Clinic: "Common Cold."
American Academy of Family Physicians: "Cough Medicine: Understanding Your Options."
UptoDate: "The common cold in adults: Treatment and prevention."
Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 11, 2012
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