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Can I Ease My Cough Without a Prescription?

by The GoodRx Pharmacist on March 25, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Coughing can be uncomfortable, and comes along with some unpleasant side effects like sore throat, chest pain, and exhaustion.

So where do you start to find some relief? First, know that your cough may be productive (a “wet” cough that produces mucus), or non-productive (a “dry” cough). There are many treatments available over-the-counter (OTC) without a prescription that can help both types.

When should I see a doctor instead of looking for an OTC remedy?

This is important. Skip the doctor and head straight to the emergency room if you’re coughing up anything pink or red (this can mean blood), if you’re choking, or if you’re having difficulty breathing or swallowing.

You should give your doctor a call if:

  • You’ve had a cough for several weeks
  • You’re wheezing
  • You have shortness of breath
  • You’re coughing up thick greenish-yellow mucus (gross, I know, but it’s something to watch out for)
  • You have a fever over 100° F

So, say I just have a stubborn, uncomfortable cough. What are my options?

There are many products out there to help with coughing and its side effects, from simple cough drops to cough syrups, topical ointments, and throat sprays.

What can I do for a productive (“wet”) cough?
Guaifenesin is the active ingredient you’ll want to look for. It’s an expectorant—it helps relieve chest congestion, and thins and loosens the mucus you’re coughing up. You can find guaifenesin in Robitussin and Mucinex, and in some combination products.

No matter what you take or don’t take, it’s important to drink a lot of water, which will also help thin out the mucus of a productive cough.

What can I do for a non-productive (“dry”) cough?
Dextromethorphan is the common active ingredient for a dry cough—it’s a cough suppressant, which offers temporary relief from coughing. Dextromethorphan can be found in Delsym, and many combination products.

When would I use a combination product?

Combination cough medicines usually contain guaifenesin and dextromethorphan, and they can both control your cough and thin and loosen any mucus. Be aware though—some combination products out there also contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain or fever relief, and you’ll want to watch your dose very carefully to make sure you don’t take too much. According to the FDA, the maximum safe dose of acetaminophen for adults is 4000 mg per day.

Some combination products you mind find include Mucinex DM or Robitussin Max DM.

What about side effects from a cough?

There are also OTC medications that can help with coughing side effects. For chest pain, you can try a topical ointment like Vicks Vaporub, which can also act as a cough suppressant and topical pain reliever. If you have a sore throat, the go-to is probably cough drops, but you can also try chloraseptic spray.

Are there any other options? What about Primatene and Bronkaid?

Yes, both Primatene and Bronkaid tablets can help loosen mucus and thin secretions to make a cough more productive. However, you’ll want to make sure to talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or other healthcare provider before you start taking them.

Why? These tablets contain forms of ephedrine, which can increase blood pressure. This can increase your risk for heart attack or stroke, especially if you already have high blood pressure.

Ephedrine can also interact with a variety of medications (prescription and over-the-counter).

Still have questions about which medication is right for you? Reach out to your doctor or pharmacist.

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