Cough Suppressants: Facts to consider before use

Dry cough occurs when the throat or the upper airways become inflamed due to cold, flu, sinusitis, exposure to allergens such as dust, pollens, fumes, smoke etc., or due to an underlying disease. Dry cough could also be due to side-effects of blood pressure reducing drugs. Before treating a cough it is essential to know the different types of cough. There are basically two types of coughs: wet cough and dry cough. Cough involving buildup of phlegm or mucus in the lungs is known as wet cough. Cough expectorants are used for this type of cough to loosen the mucus so that when you do cough, it can be more productive. The other type of cough is called dry cough which does not involve any mucus. Dry cough can be treated with cough suppressants to reduce the amount of coughing.

Suppressants are medicines that temporarily quiet a cough (or decrease the urge to cough) due to inhaled irritants, chest infections and other diseases. They are completely opposite to expectorants as expectorants make you cough more by enhancing mucus production to remove bacteria and other foreign particles. The suppressants contain active ingredients that temporarily reduce the cough reflex. They do so by acting on the center in the brain that controls the cough reflex, thus making you feel the need to cough less. These suppressants are used for only dry, hacking and should never be used for coughs that bring up mucus. They should also not be used for coughs associated with emphysema, smoking, asthma etc.


The active ingredients of these suppressants are camphor, menthol, benzonatate, codeine, tartrazine, eucalyptus oil and dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan is the major component of the cough medicines which are available in various forms and without a physician’s prescription. Regular dosage of this suppressant include 10-20mg every 6 hours (for adults), 5-15mg every eight hours (for children from 5-12) and 2.5-5.5mg every 4 to 6 hours (for children between 2 to 6). A doctor should be consulted before giving suppressants to infants. The above mentioned doses for adults and children could also vary according to doctor’s prescription, severity of the cough and the underlying condition or disease. Suppressants containing methanol should be applied to the throat and chest in a thick layer and the area should not be covered by a cloth. It should be left open to allow the vapors to reach the mouth and the nostrils. Benzonatate is yet another cough suppressant that is available only by prescription and it comes in fluid filled or regular capsule. It suppresses the cough’s reflex in the body’s lungs and treats dry cough stemming from common cold, lung infections, pneumonia and bronchitis. Another important active ingredient of the suppressants is codeine which is usually paired with another ingredient called as promethazine. Codeine suppresses brain activity that initiates cough. The combination of these two ingredients comes in a syrup form and is used to treat cough stemming from allergies and common cold. Besides the above mentioned active ingredients, they also have inactive ingredients (Excipients) that aid in manufacturing process and easy absorption of the active ingredients in the body.

Generally Mild side-effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, vomiting, and nausea can be experienced. When used with medicines that cause drowsiness, the effect can be enhanced. Dextromethorphan contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame that decompose in the body to phenylalanine. Hence people with phenylketonuria should not consume it. People with liver ailments should also refrain from using it. Pregnant ladies and lactating mothers should not use it directly without a physician’s advice. Patients consuming MAO inhibitors should avoid using suppressant products with dextromethorphan as it leads to fainting, dizziness, fever, nausea and even coma. Another ingredient involved in such medications is tartrazine, a dye used to add colors to the product. This dye is known to cause allergic reactions in people allergic to aspirin.

Facts to be known Before Using a Cough Suppressant:


Read the drug facts label carefully. The label contains important information regarding when it should be used, the ingredients, dose to be taken for different age groups and who should not use the product. Do not consume more than the maximum doses recommended.

Cough suppressants such as lozenges should not be swallowed. It should be placed in the mouth and allowed to dissolve slowly and absorbed through the mouth. Before giving lozenge to a kid under the age of 5, make sure that the kid is able to dissolve it in the mouth without choking.

The suppressants may contain ingredients that can react vigorously with other medicines. For instance, certain ingredients like detromethorphan react with drugs used for treating psychiatric patients and drugs for curing depression. The ingredients also react with monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Hence, consulting a GP is crucial before consuming any two medications simultaneously.

Do not use it if your cough is accompanied by excessive congestion or if you are having chronic cough due to smoking, bronchitis, emphysema, asthma etc.

A dry cough lasting for more than a week and accompanied by severe weight loss, persistent headache, rash and fever, could be a sign of a serious condition. If it happens then consult a physician without further delay.

There are some additional considerations while treating kids with dry cough symptoms. A child under the age of 5 should not be given oral cough suppressants (external cough suppressant products like ointments can be used). Medicines with a label mentioning usage for adults should never be given to a child. When children are using vaporizers, they should be carefully monitored as the hot steam could cause burns.