Skip to content

Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Cough Medicine: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Get the facts on cough medicine.
Font Size
A
A
A
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Coughs send more people to the doctor's office than any other specific symptom, according to experts. And Americans spend billions of dollars every year on over-the-counter medications to fight coughs, such as cough suppressants and expectorants.  

Clearly we're concerned about our coughs. Clearly we rely on cough medication. What's unclear is the answer to this core question: Do cough medicines work?

"We've never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with cough," says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer 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."

Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

Swine Flu and Asthma

Before the latest flu season had officially gotten under way, the swine flu (or H1N1 virus) was already stealing headlines as it left a trail of fever, aches, and general misery across the country. For people with asthma, watching the swine flu sweep across the nation has been especially nerve wracking. Both swine flu and asthma attack the airways, and having both conditions makes people particularly vulnerable to severe respiratory complications from swine flu. "Patients with asthma are more likely...

Read the Swine Flu and Asthma article > >

Should you take cough medicine? 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. According to research:

  • Coughs are the reason for more than 30 million doctor visits every year.
  • By some estimates, coughs are the most common medical symptom. 
  • Studies show that acute and chronic coughs reduce a person's quality of life.

We're desperate for an effective cough treatment. However, we don't seem to have one. No new licensed cough treatment has appeared in more than 50 years -- and the evidence for older drugs is not strong.

  • A 2010 review of studies found that there is no evidence to support using common over-the-counter drugs for cough. This includes cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, or expectorants such as guaifenesin, which are supposed to loosen up mucus in the airways.
  • In 2006, the American College of Chest Physicians surveyed a number of cough medicine studies from the last few decades. It found no evidence that these medicines help people with common coughs caused by viruses. 

It's important to understand that these studies have not proven that 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.

1 | 2 | 3

Today on WebMD

hot toddy
15 tips to help you feel better.
man sneezing into elbow
Do echinacea and vitamin C really help a cold?
 
teen girl coughing
Get a good night’s rest with these remedies.
elder berry
Eat these to fight colds, flu, and more.
 
Natural Cold Flu Remedies Slideshow
Slideshow
cold weather
VIDEO
 
Allergy And Sinus Symptom Evaluator
Article
Boy holding ear
Slideshow
 

Loaded with tips to help you avoid food allergy triggers.

Loading ...

Sending your email...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

Thanks!

Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

woman receiving vaccine shot
Article
woman with fever
Article
 
Waking up from sleep
Article
woman with sore throat
Slideshow