Best OTC Cough Medicine for Adults

Posted by Avron Anstey on

A hacking cough is annoying, keeps you up at night, and simply worsens with time. Sometimes, constant coughing can be so uncomfortable that throat irritation and chest pain occur.

Don’t settle for the first medication you see; it’s good to know which medication to get that works best for you. If you’re experiencing a constant, bad cough, check out our basic guidelines for over-the-counter cough medicine for adults.


What Causes a Cough?

There are various factors that can cause significant coughing. Whatever combination of environmental and lifestyle factors contributed to your cough, over-the-counter medication can help soothe your throat so you can sleep better at night or work throughout the day with minimal symptoms.


If you have a cold, viral infections can irritate the throat. This results in a severe cough. If you are a chronic smoker, the toxins from the cigarettes can damage the lungs. Weak lungs may lead to chronic bronchitis, in turn causing constant coughing.

Vocal Strain

Whether you were singing your heart out to your favorite song or gave a long speech to a large crowd, it will have an effect on your voice. The constant usage of your voice can strain your vocal cords, which can lead to throat irritation and coughing symptoms. 


Types of OTC for Coughing Symptoms

OTC medication does not require a prescription from a doctor. There are two types of cough medications—antitussive and expectorant. A common antitussive medication is dextromethorphan, the active ingredient found in Robitussin, Vicks, and Triaminic. The only expectorant available on the OTC market is guaifenesin, an ingredient in Robitussin and Mucinex.

OTC Medicine Strength and Usage

All cough medications have different ingredients and mechanisms of action. They specific role is reducing certain symptoms. It’s best to have a good understanding of what each of these OTC medications can do.


Expectorants help loosen the mucus in the sinuses so that the body can expel them more easily. The main ingredient is guaifenesin, the only expectorant in the US.


A suppressant will help reduce the time you spend coughing. Its active ingredient is dextromethorphan. Suppressants contain other ingredients, including eucalyptus oil, methanol, and camphor.

Combo Products

Some cough medications combine more than one active ingredient, like dextromethorphan. The primary function of combining active ingredients is to provide a multifaceted approach in eliminating mucus and suppressing coughs. The element unique to these combo products is that they contain ingredients to treat other symptoms, such as antihistamine and decongestant for runny nose, allergies, and painkillers.

Cough Drops

Not only can cough drops soothe your throat, but they come in a variety of flavors so you’re bound to find one you like. The honey and lemon variety are jam-packed with Vitamin C and are potent in suppressing coughing and soothing sore throats.


How Do OTC Cough Drugs Work?

The OTC cough drug emphasizes blocking the cough flex. The expectorant loosens up the mucus by cutting down the bonds that cause its thick texture. This will help clear your throat and eliminate mucus. It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated and to further thin out the mucus.

Dextromethorphan is an ingredient often combined with other components to serve multiple roles in your body. For example, Robitussin has a combination of dextromethorphan and expectorant ingredients to help alleviate coughing symptoms. The multi-symptom cold medicine can act as a painkiller, fever-reducer, decongestant, and can even soothe a sore throat.

Using OTC Drugs Safely

How to Store OTC Drugs

It’s important to store the medication out of sight and reach from small children. You want to keep the OTC drugs in a dry and cool place and to avoid using it when it has expired.

Side Effects of OTC Drugs

Usually, adults don’t experience side effects from OTC medications. However, side effect symptoms do occur for some individuals.

The common side effects are fatigue, dizziness, irritability, nausea, and G.I. upset. If you experience any side effects from these medications, it’s best to refrain from use and find an alternative.

Keep in mind that cough medicine often has a combination of pain reliever, decongestant, and antihistamine. If you take a combo medication, it’s best to understand each active ingredient and how it interacts with the other components. This is very important because many cold medications include pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is a stimulant property that can react with ingredients found in ADHD medication. 

It is also important to talk to your doctor about potential interactions, so you can lower your risk of experiencing unfavorable side effects from taking certain drugs such as reactions to toxins or allergies.

Can We Give Adult Medicine to Kids?

One of the most common mistakes that adults make is to give their own medication to their kids. Keep in mind that adult cough medication contains a different dosage than medication design for young children, so kids might be inadvertently taking a higher dosage than intended if they take medicine suited for adults.

It is important to note that adult cough medication may contain components of aspirin, which can be very detrimental to young children. Aspirin can cause Reye's syndrome in children, elevating the liver enzyme and potentially causing the destruction of the liver. It’s best to talk to your doctor before giving any OTC medication to young children.

When Should I See My Doctor?

If you have used OTC medication and made modifications for a healthier lifestyle but you still experience a severe cough, then it’s time to see the doctor. Chronic cough may indicate a bacterial infection that will require prescription medication to get rid of it.

Your doctor may have to do a chest x-ray and pulmonary function test to test for more serious causes of your cough, including lung problems like COPD, asthma, or pulmonary fibrosis. All of these common lung issues can cause a chronic cough. With treating lung issues, your doctor may have to prescribe you albuterol, recommend smoking cessation, steroid medications, ipratropium, or even antibiotics.


Coughing symptoms are extremely annoying and troublesome. The symptom may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection, smoke inhalation, or pulmonary issues. 

Fortunately, there is an OTC medication from a local drugstore that can reduce the throat irritation, suppress cough, pain reliever, and loosen up the mucus. But if the medications do not completely eradicate the cough, then it's best to see a doctor to check for other underlying conditions such as bacterial infection or pulmonary issue. Both of these medical conditions require prescription medication to help the patient fully recover. 

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