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Cough medicine: when to use it and what to buy


Coughing when you’re sick can be a noisy nuisance for both you, and the people around you. But when you go to the store to buy medicine to stop that cough, the options can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing.

This week, “Take Care” hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen talk to Dr. Elizabeth Higdon, who holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and is an instructor at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences campus in Vermont, and ask her advice on what the best cough medicines are to buy, and when to buy them.

There are three types of coughs that our bodies can experience when we’re sick, a productive cough, a nonproductive cough, and an ineffective productive cough, according to Higdon.

Productive cough

A productive cough means there is phlegm or mucus in the lungs the body is trying to get rid of. Higdon says if a productive cough isn’t interfering with work or sleep, it’s something you should try not to suppress since it gets the bacteria out of your body, which made you sick in the first place. 

“As long as you’re getting that mucus or gunk up out of your lungs, we really don’t want to suppress it, your body is doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” Higdon said.

But if your cough is keeping you up at night and preventing you from getting the sleep that would make you better, Higdon says the key ingredient to look for when buying cough medicine is dextromethorphan. And what is this big long word, you ask?

Dextromethorphan is the active ingredient for many cough medicines because it decreases the feeling that you need to cough. Higdon says the most popular over-the-counter medications containing this ingredient are Robitussin, DayQuil, and NyQuil.

Credit Chris Piascik / Flickr

Nonproductive cough

A nonproductive cough is simply caused by an annoying tickle in the throat that isn’t getting anything out of the lungs.

Although Higdon says a nonproductive cough is likely to be caused by things other than mucus, like a virus or post nasal drip, the same medications with dextromethorphan would be used to suppress it.

Ineffective productive cough

An ineffective productive cough is a sub-category to a productive cough, which requires different medication. Higdon says this means there is mucus or phlegm in the lungs causing the cough, but the cough is unable to break it up and get it out of the body.

For this, Higdon says you should look for cough medication that advertises an expectorant called guaifenesin.

“The way that works, is it helps to kind of thin out the mucus in your lungs, so that your body’s able to move that mucus out,” Higdon said.

The name brand for this is Mucinex, but Higdon said there are also cheaper generic versions to choose from. She also mentions that staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water can be a natural way to break up mucus.

When to see a doctor

If the above mentioned over-the-counter medications do not help further your recovery, Higdon advises seeking out medical attention, as you may need a stronger prescription medication.

“If your cough is not getting better after seven days and you’ve been treating it, or your cough is getting worse, you need to get in and you need to see your doctor,” Higdon said.