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Types of Cough Medicines for Wet and Dry Cough

Most of us use an over-the-counter cough syrup or apply a menthol-based ointment on our chest to treat a cough. But, before you reach for any random cough syrup you need to know how these medicines act so you can figure out which one is appropriate. There are different types of medicines for different types of cough. A wet or productive cough, for instance, needs to be treated differently than a dry cough. Read on to find out more about the types of cough medicines that are available over the counter or as a prescription.

  • Cough suppressants: These are also called antitussives and are usually used for a dry cough. A cough suppressant acts by suppressing the part of your brain that makes you feel like coughing. Their effectiveness is often debated but these are usually considered safe unless taken in large quantities. It is not good to use for treating cough related to smoking or long-term bronchial problems. The ingredient called dextromethorphan, a prescription-only drug is listed in the cough suppressant.


  • Expectorants and mucolytics: These are usually prescribed for a wet or a productive cough. Expectorants work by increasing the secretions and mucolytics work by thinning or loosening the mucus in the lungs making it easier for you to cough. The common ingredient you need to look for in the cough syrup is guaifenesin.


  • Decongestants: These are used to clear a stuffy nose and treat a cough which is caused by the mucus dripping back into the throat. They can only be used to clear up the airways if your nose is blocked so you can sleep easier if your cough is due to a post nasal drip. The common ingredient to look for in decongestants is phenylephrine.


  • Antihistamines: These are allergy medicines and only work if your cough is due to allergies which affect your nose and throat. These block the release of histamines, which are produced by our body as a reaction to allergens. Antihistamines can help treat cough and watery eyes and sneezing which are allergic reactions and not the allergy itself. A common ingredient to look for in a cough syrup is chlorpheniramine.


  • Combination medicines: Some cough syrups combine expectorants with decongestants and an antihistamine. Sometimes a pain reliever may also be included These are typically used if you have a range of symptoms such as cold congestion, cough, and body ache. However, you may end up with unnecessary medicines. Some of these medications known as fixed-dose combinations are now banned in India.


  • Topical applications: Ointments containing camphor or menthol are often rubbed on the chest or back to alleviate colds and coughs. They are supposed to provide relief but there is not enough evidence to prove that these are effective.

If over-the-counter medicines don’t provide any relief, you may need to see a doctor for prescription medicines. It is also important to consult a doctor before taking these medicines, especially if you are taking antidepressants, blood pressure medication, or any other long-term medications. Also, consult a doctor immediately if you notice any severe side effects.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)

Also read:

What Mucus/Phlegm/Snot/Sputum Says About Your Health?

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List of drug combinations banned by the Ministry:


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