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How do I choose the best medicine for my cough?

Written and medically reviewed by Dorcas Morak, Pharm.D

Is your cough so annoying that it keeps you searching for the best cough medicines you can take? Are you unsure whether an over-the-counter or prescription cough medicine is a better option for your needs? By the time you finish reading this page, you will be confident in your ability to select the best cough medications for your cough.

To choose the best cough medicines, you will need to first understand the different types of cough and their causes.

What Causes Cough?

Causes of cough can be classified as acute and chronic.

Causes of acute cough are:

  • Foreign particles like dust and smoke.
  • Viral infections like the common cold, influenza, and COVID-19.
  • Bacterial infections like pneumonia.
  • Acute viral bronchitis.
  • Acute viral sinusitis.
  • Choking.
  • Laryngitis.

Causes of chronic cough are:

  • Chronic bronchitis.
  • Allergies.
  • Asthma.
  • Postnasal drip.
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
  • Smoking.
  • Lung cancer.
  • The side effect of medications like lisinopril and enalapril.

What are the Types of Cough Medicine?

There are four broad types of cough medicines. They are:

  • Expectorants: expectorants thin out the mucus in the lungs and make it easier to cough out.
  • Suppressants or antitussives: it blocks the cough reflex in the brain and stops the cough.
  • Decongestants: decongestant constricts blood vessels to relieve the stuffiness of your nose. It dries out nasal tissues and relieves cough caused by the irritating effect of nasal drip.
  • Antihistamines: it blocks the action of histamine which is responsible for runny nose and nasal drip.

What are Over-the-Counter Cough Medicines?

Over-the-counter cough medications mostly can be expectorant or suppressant. Some of its common active ingredients are:

  • Guaifenesin: guaifenesin is the only approved expectorant in the U.S. It is usually co-formulated with other ingredients. Example is Mucinex.
  • Dextromethorphan: it is a derivative of a narcotic used as a cough suppressant. It is found in Diabetic Tussin Nighttime Cold and Flu and Tussidin DM NR.
  • Pseudoephedrine: it is a nasal decongestant that is used to relieve a stuffy or runny nose. It is found in Sudafed.
  • Phenylephrine: this is also a decongestant that is found in many OTC cough medicines. It is found in Prometh VC Plain ?Honey: honey is as effective as dextromethorphan as a cough suppressant. Honey is not recommended for children less than one year because of the potential risk of botulism.

It is worth mentioning that the FDA doesn't recommend over-the-counter cough medicines for children younger than two years.

What are Prescription Cough Medicine Options?

Prescription-only cough medications have stronger active ingredients than those contained in OTC cough medications. Some of the prescription-only cough syrup active ingredients are:

  • Benzonatate: it is a non-narcotic cough suppressant that numbs the stretch sensors in the lungs. It is found in Tessalon Perles.
  • Codeine: codeine is a narcotic suppressant that works via opioid receptors to inhibit cough reflex. It is found in Tuxarin.
  • Hydrocodone: it is also an opioid cough suppressant like codeine. It is found in Zohydro.

What are the possible Side Effects of Cough Medicine?

You may have these side effects when you take cough medicine:

  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Nervousness.

The side effects are not exhaustive. Ask your pharmacist or doctor about the possible side effects of cough medicines.

So, what is the best Cough Medicine for me?

OTC medications may be the best and quickest way to get your cough under control. However, the best cough medication depends on the type of cough you have. If you have:

  • Wet productive cough: expectorant works very well to relieve wet cough. It loosens the mucus and helps you to cough it out easily. Examples are: Mucinex and Robafen.
  • Dry cough: suppressants are effective for dry cough; it suppresses the cough reflex. Examples are Zohydro and codeine.
  • Allergy cough: if your cough is due to allergy, consider antihistamine-containing cough syrup. Examples are: Benadryl and Rynex DM.
  • Sinus congestion: decongestant works very well to relieve sinus congestion. Examples are Sudafed and Tri-Sudo.

Now that you know the right cough medicine to select for your cough, ask your doctor for a prescription and get up to 88% off with the rxless discount coupon. The coupon is acceptable in many pharmacies including CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid, and Walgreens.