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Coughs send more people to the doctor's office than any other specific symptom. And Americans spend billions of dollars every year on over-the-counter medications like suppressants and expectorants to treat them.

Clearly we're concerned about our coughs. Clearly lots of us rely on medications to treat them. What's unclear is the answer to this core question: Do these medicines work?

"We've never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with cough," says Norman Edelman, MD, senior scientific advisor at the American Lung Association. "But people are desperate to get some relief. They're so convinced that they should work that they buy them anyway."

Should you use these products? Here's what you need to know about the pros and cons of common cough medicines.

Cough Medicine: The Evidence

Coughs cause a lot of misery.

  • They send more than 30 million people to the doctor every year.
  • By some estimates, they’re the most common medical symptom.

Many of us badly want an effective cough treatment, but we don't seem to have one. No new licensed remedy has appeared in more than 50 years -- and the case for older drugs isn’t strong.

  • A review of studies found no proof that common over-the-counter drugs help with your cough. This includes suppressants like dextromethorphan, which block your cough reflex, and expectorants like guaifenesin, which are supposed to loosen up mucus in the airways.
  • One survey of cough medicine studies from the last few decades found nothing to show that they help with coughs caused by viruses.

It's important to understand that these studies don’t say cough medicines don’t work. Rather, they’ve just found no proof that they do. It’s always possible that further studies could show that they help.