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5. Take Medications to Treat Coughs

When steamy showers, hot teas, and cough drops don’t help, you can turn to over-the-counter medicines to ease your cough.

Decongestants: Decongestants relieve nasal congestion by shrinking swollen nasal tissue and reducing mucus production. They dry up mucus in the lungs and open up the airway passages, Weiss says. 

Decongestants come in pills, liquids, and nasal sprays under many brand names. Look for phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine as the active ingredient in decongestants taken by mouth, but be careful. These medicines can raise blood pressure, so people with hypertension need to be careful with their use. Also, overuse of decongestants can lead to excessive dryness, which can trigger a dry cough.

Decongestant nasal sprays, if used for more than 3 or 4 days, can lead to rebound congestion, Mosnaim says. It’s best to use them for 2 or 3 days and then stop.  

Cough suppressants and expectorants: If you’re coughing so much that your chest hurts and you’re getting a bad night’s sleep, consider a cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan, Mosnaim says. Yoder recommends using cough suppressants only at night.  

When a person has a cough that is thick with phlegm, Mosnaim says it helps to take a cough expectorant such as guaifenesin. Expectorants thin out the mucus so one can more easily cough it up, she says. 

Note: The FDA advises against giving cold and cough medicine to children under age 4. These common over-the-counter drugs can cause serious side effects in young children.

Find Out What’s Causing Your Cough

Coughs caused by the common cold usually go away in a few weeks. Chronic, persistent coughs may be caused by underlying medical problem such as allergies, asthma, or acid reflux -- or by the medications you take. To lose those coughs, you need to treat the underlying problem.

Talk to your doctor if your cough lasts longer than 4 weeks, or if you are coughing up blood or having other symptoms such as weight loss, chills, or fatigue.