What is a Cough Suppressant and Expectorant?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Expectorants are used to help people recover from coughs.
Expectorants are used to help people recover from coughs.

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.

Cough syrups are the most common remedy for cough suppression.
Cough syrups are the most common remedy for cough suppression.

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.

A cough suppressant might be used to get some sleep.
A cough suppressant might be used to get some sleep.

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.

Expectorants are best for dry coughs.
Expectorants are best for dry coughs.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

texsum

For me, the remedy of choice is Mucinex DM. Everyone catches a cold once in a while. One of the most common diseases is cough and cold. Generally, when you catch a cold you do not see a doctor to get a prescribed drug. Instead, you look for over the counter drugs and home based remedies. But if it is a bad cold which results into chest congestion, then the home based remedies might not be enough.

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