Cough Medicines: What They Are and How They Work

Cough Medicines: What They Are and How They Work

Most people believe that coughing is an ailment itself, but it is actually the body’s natural way of expelling foreign particles. This is why cough is a common symptom in illnesses like the flu and common colds.

When you cough, your body is doing its best to recover from the disease. This is the reason why not all cough medicines are made to stop it. Instead, some of these are designed to make coughing easier.

Here, you will learn the different types of cough medicines and how they work to relieve coughing.

1.   Expectorants

Medication and natural ingredients that people use to alleviate congestion and loosen chesty cough are called expectorants. This chesty cough treatment can come in the form of standalone drugs or a key ingredient in combination medicine (more on this later) for the common cold and flu.

What Does An Expectorant Do?

They work to clear mucus or phlegm from the airways by increasing the water in the secretion, making them less sticky and easier to cough up.

While expectorants make coughing easier, they don’t necessarily stop coughing altogether. They provide crucial support for productive cough (also known as “wet” cough) that should not be suppressed since it is how the body gets rid of foreign particles, excess mucus, and microorganisms in the airways.

Below are some examples of the most commonly used cough expectorants:


Guaifenesin is the most commonly used and available expectorant that can be bought over the counter. This medication can be found in combination and as a standalone medicine, particularly in:

  • cold and flu remedies
  • cough suppressants
  • decongestants
  • fever and pain medications

Experts have yet to discover how guaifenesin works to stop coughing exactly. What they do know is that this substance helps lessen the thickness of mucus by hydrating it for easier coughing.

Potassium Iodide

Doctors may prescribe potassium iodide in oral solutions to patients with chronic lung ailments, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.

Like guaifenesin, this medicine loosens the mucus to make it easier to expel through coughing by adding more fluid to the phlegm.

However, potassium iodide can only be bought with a doctor’s prescription.  This is because there are several side effects associated with its intake, including:

  • Excess salivation
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, acid reflux, and stomach pain
  • Tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness of the limbs (hands or feet)
  • Skin sores
  • Sore gums
  • Irregular heartbeat rhythm
  • Severe headache
  • Taste disturbances (i.e., metallic or brassy taste in the mouth)

2.   Antitussives

Besides expectorants, cough medicine can also come in the form of antitussives. Also known as cough suppressants, this type of medication works to suppress the coughing reflex.

But because coughing is the body’s way of getting rid of irritants in the airways, stopping it using these drugs isn’t always recommended. Instead, doctors recommend the use of antitussives in case of dry and irritating coughs without mucus production.

You see, mucus-producing coughs (a.k.a. productive or “wet” cough) should never be suppressed, as they can lead to hazardous consequences. In case of viral coughs, it’s best to increase fluid intake and expose the airways to humidity to help loosen mucus.

How do antitussives stop cough?

Antitussives are believed to disrupt the cough reflex arc by blocking the coordinating region in the brain. However, the exact mechanism of how the process happens remains a mystery.


The most commonly used cough suppressant is dextromethorphan.

This medicine is used to temporarily stop cough because of conditions like common colds and flu. Take note, however, that this doesn’t mean it can treat cough or even hasten the recovery process.

Most of the time, dextromethorphan comes in the following forms:

  • liquid-filled capsule
  • chewable tablet
  • dissolving strip
  • liquid solution
  • extended-release (long-acting) liquid suspension
  • oral lozenges

Dextromethorphan is usually administered every four to 12 hours, though you need to be sure that you followed the instructions on the prescription label or package.

Heed the warning from experts and never take more than the prescribed amount of this medicine within 24 hours. You can check the package for the amount of drug every dose contains.

Also, avoid taking or giving medicine for cough and cold with similar ingredients. If you’re not sure, consult a doctor or ask the pharmacist about it.

3.   Combination Medicine

As the name implies, combination medicine comprises two or more types of medication.

For cough-and-cold relief products, this can be a mix of expectorant and suppressant with medicine meant for other symptoms. Some of the common examples are decongestants, fever and pain reliever, and antihistamine.

Mashing up medicine could be a good thing if you experience several cold and flu symptoms like body pains, congestion, and cough. However, you run the risk of taking medicine you don’t need when taking this type of medication. To be sure, use it sparingly.

When to Take Cough Medicine: What to Consider

Doctors don’t always recommend taking medicine to stop coughing. In fact, many of them will tell you not to take medicine for cough due to a cold unless it leads to sleepless nights or affects your daily life.

Remember that coughing helps ensure that your respiratory tract is clear, especially if you smoke or have chronic ailments like emphysema or asthma.

Substances that comprise these drugs may have adverse effects with other medicines or to certain conditions.

For example, dextromethorphan may affect medicines used to treat depression. Plus, certain combination medicines for colds and cough may contain decongestants that increase blood pressure, which is bad for people with heart disease or hypertension.

With that in mind, you must make sure that you talk to a medical practitioner before using cold medicine if you have other medical conditions.

There’s also the matter of combination medicines. One of the biggest – and most common – mistakes made in treating cough is not reading the list of ingredients of medicines. Many tablets, soft gels, and syrups combine antitussives, antihistamine, and other drugs, so be careful when taking more than one product.

The Bottom Line

Treating cough may not always be as straightforward as most people think. When in doubt, always seek advice from a licensed medical practitioner.

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