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What Is a Cough Suppressant and Expectorant?

Expectorants are used to help people recover from coughs.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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A cough suppressant and expectorant is a combination medicine that contains at least two active ingredients. One of these, a suppressant, is supposed to reduce coughing. The other ingredient is an expectorant, which helps to thin mucus secretions so that the mucus creating the cough is more easily expelled with coughing. In many cases, the action of suppressants and expectorants are exactly opposite. Thinned mucus secretions can’t be expelled with a cough if a person’s cough has been suppressed. Most cough medicines are viewed with some suspicion by mainstream medical organizations and use of products like a cough suppressant and expectorant are only advocated during limited circumstances.

Many cough suppressant and expectorant medications are available in over the counter preparations. The most popular contains the two drugs dextromethorphan and guaifenesin, which are suppressant and expectorant respectively. There also may be some expectorant/suppressant combos that are available by prescription, but generally, prescription cough medicines lean toward suppressing nighttime cough. Both prescribed and over the counter meds may also include antihistamines, which can slightly reduce or dry up mucus, but these don’t tend to offer expectorant action.

Guidelines on taking these medications vary. Many physicians suggest that suppressants shouldn’t be used, except perhaps at night, for any cough that is wet or productive. It’s a good idea not to suppress this coughing as it is performing an important function for the body.

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Still, strong coughing at night can rob people of needed sleep, which aids in recovery, so it’s possible a single dose of a suppressant might be appropriate. It is important to point out that over the counter suppressants aren’t necessarily greatly effective, and they can’t be taken by all people. Anyone with other medical conditions should read labels carefully to be certain use of any type of cough suppressant is appropriate.

A suppressant is considered better treatment if coughing is very dry and isn’t bringing up any type of phlegm. In these cases, an expectorant probably isn’t that helpful. It’s hard to thin mucus that doesn’t exist. People are also advised to see a physician before they take a cough suppressant and expectorant, or either medicine alone if a cough is long-lasting, very violent, or accompanied with fever.

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