What is an Antitussive?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 February 2020
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"Antitussive" is both a noun and a verb, and each definition relates to the ability to suppress or calm coughing. These medicines are thought to reduce amount of coughing, and are distinct from expectorants, which are also cough medicines. The expectorant thins and loosen secretions so they can be coughed up more readily.

A number of guidelines exist on when to use cough medicine of any kind, and it should be noted that many studies suggest over the counter cough medicines simply aren’t very effective. Some medical organizations recommend not giving cough syrup to those under the age of two or sometimes under six, and many assert that there just isn’t enough medicine in the majority of over the counter drugs to make them of much use. There are some prescription medicines that are considered more effective, but many of these contain either hydrocodone or codeine, and aren’t appropriate for use in all cases.

When people seek an antitussive they’re advised to do so when they have a dry cough that isn’t producing very much mucus. A productive cough with a lot of sputum is better handled with an expectorant, which may cause coughing, and could help in the process of clearing the lungs. Using cough suppressants for a productive cough is not recommended, unless advised by a physician.


The antitussive medication that most people turn to is dextromethorphan. It’s widely available in over the counter syrups and may be available in prescription strength too. Despite some suspicion on the part of the medical community that this drug is not very effective, some people do find it stops coughing for a few hours. For longer lasting medication, people normally must turn to things like codeine cough syrup. Such preparations are frequently recommended for nighttime use only.

To confuse matters, there are many combination cough syrups with antitussive and expectorant effects, and it’s unclear how well these medications work in combination. Thinning secretions and reducing cough seem like opposite goals, but many people swear by medications like these. Many people turn to remedies that are antitussive, but based on more natural ingredients such as honey. Medical researchers have studied its benefits and it does seem to be effective in reducing the frequency of coughs. It should never be used as a treatment for children under the age of two because it contains botulism spores to which young babies are vulnerable.

Another suggested antitussive is chocolate, and there are many more. Some people find hot liquids seem to help with a cough or even getting some outdoor air can be of use. It should be noted that whatever the remedy, medical help is needed if people develop a high fever with coughing, if cough persists beyond two to three weeks, or if coughing produces mucus that is green, black, or bloody. In these cases it’s unlikely that over the counter antitussives or expectorants will be particularly helpful.


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