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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

OTC Medicines for Cough: What You Need to Know

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Is a hacking cough making you feel lousy? Don't grab a random box of cough medicine off the pharmacy shelf. Just a few basics will guide you to an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine for the kind of cough you have.

All Medicines Aren't the Same

The role of cough medicine is to ease symptoms while your body heals.

As a glance at the drugstore shelves will show you, there are many, many brands of OTC cough medicines. But there are only three basic types:

Expectorants help thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. The ingredient guaifenesin is the only expectorant in the U.S., so look for it on the label if you need an expectorant.

Suppressants help cut the number of times you cough. The active ingredient listed is usually dextromethorphan (DM). Other cough suppressants include camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol.

Combination cough products have more than one active ingredient. They have both guaifenesin and dextromethorphan. Cough medicines may also contain ingredients to help coat and soothe the throat.

Combination products may have medicines to ease other symptoms, including decongestants for stuffy nose, antihistamines for allergies or a runny nose, or painkillers. Choose a medicine that matches your symptoms.

Cough drops can also help relieve a cough and may ease a sore throat.

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