Cough Facts

Did you know there are different types of coughs? To best identify and treat your cough, here’s what you need to know.

A chesty or congested cough is loose and accompanied by a buildup of mucus or phlegm in the lungs. Cough expectorants help loosen the mucus so that when you do cough, it can be more productive. There are also coughs where no mucus or phlegm is present. Both types of coughs can be treated with an antitussive, or cough suppressant, to reduce the amount of coughing. The active ingredients in all cough medicines are listed first on the Drug Facts label.

Cough Treatments

Cough Expectorants: Certain conditions, such as the common cold, can cause a buildup of mucus, leading to chest congestion and a chesty or congested cough. Cough expectorants (i.e., medicines that help relieve chest congestion caused by mucus) help loosen congestion so that when you do cough it is more productive, which means you clear the mucus from your lungs.

  • Cough expectorant active ingredients help rid airways of mucus by making the mucus more fluid so that it is easier to clear by coughing.
  • The active ingredient in expectorant medicines is called guaifenesin. Some expectorant medicines may contain additional active ingredients to reduce the amount of coughing or treat related symptoms, such as nasal congestion, runny nose and sneezing, minor aches and pains, and fever.
  • Expectorant active ingredients are available in oral medicines such as liquids and tablets. These medicines are taken by mouth and absorbed through the bloodstream.

Cough Suppressants: Many of us are exposed to a variety of pollutants in the air, such as dust, exhaust fumes, and smoke, on a daily basis. When you develop a dry cough, it is your body’s way of clearing pollutants and other irritants from your airways. Cough suppressants, also known as antitussives, are medicines that are used to temporarily control or quiet a cough due to a cold, inhaled irritants, or minor throat and bronchial irritation.

  • The active ingredients in cough suppressants work by temporarily reducing the cough reflex, which makes you feel the need to cough less.
  • Cough suppressants are available in both oral and topical medicine forms. Oral cough suppressants such as pills, liquids, and tablets are taken by mouth and absorbed through the bloodstream. Topical cough suppressants, like ointments and steam vaporizers, are inhaled after being applied to the chest or released into the air by steam. Lozenges are also considered topical cough suppressants because they are not swallowed whole. Lozenges are slowly dissolved in the mouth and absorbed through the throat.
  • Cough suppressant active ingredients include:

Oftentimes, a cough is just one of many symptoms that you might be experiencing. There are some medicines that treat a cough and other symptoms that can sometimes accompany a cough, such as chest congestion, nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, minor aches and pains, and fever.


All of the tips for the safe use of OTC cough medicines also apply to children. But like most OTCs, there are some additional considerations when it comes to treating kids.

  • Do not give a cough expectorant or suppressant medicine to a child under the age of 4.
  • Do not give any OTC medicine that is only intended for an adult to a child.
  • Young children should be carefully supervised when vaporizers are running because the hot steam that is released could cause burns or injuries.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider before using a topical cough suppressant ointment on a child under the age of 2.
  • Before giving a cough lozenge to a child under the age of 6, make sure the child is able to safely dissolve a lozenge in their mouth without choking. Read the Drug Facts label carefully for appropriate use in children and contact a healthcare provider as directed.

Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.

  • One in 30 teens abuses cough medicines containing dextromethorphan to get high. Abusers may take up to 25 times the recommended dose. For more information, visit