How to Treat a Cough

By Stephanie Watson and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 04, 2023
How to Treat a Cough

Should you take an over-the-counter cough medicine, or are there better options for your cough? Here's how to treat a cough with both OTC and home remedies.

When colds and respiratory infections leave you with a hacking cough that disrupts your work and interrupts your sleep, you could reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressant.

Yet, chances are, it won’t do you any good.


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Why do I cough?

Coughing is your body’s way to clear an irritant from your throat, airway, and lungs. There are four types of coughs:

  • A wet cough brings up mucous.
  • A dry cough can be a tickle in the back of your throat or a hacking cough.
  • A paroxysmal cough is violent, uncontrolled coughing or a coughing spasm.
  • Croup is a barking cough that can cause a raspy voice and squeaky breath. It usually affects children ages 5 and under.

How to treat a cough

Cough medicines to treat cold and flu-related coughs include antitussives, expectorants, antihistamines, and decongestants.

  • Antitussives are cough suppressants that block the cough reflex. They can contain codeine and hydrocodone (via a prescription), opioids (pain relievers) that may be abused. Dextromethorphan and carbetapentane, which are not opioids, are safer to have in a home with children.
  • Expectorants loosen mucus, making it easier to expel it from your airways.
  • Antihistamines and antihistamines combined with decongestants clear nasal congestion and may help coughs caused by postnasal drip.

Do cough medicines work?

Many studies of over-the-counter medicines and have found no real evidence that antihistamines, decongestants, or antitussives ease coughs. Many of the studies that did yield positive results were sponsored by drug companies instead of being independent research.

OTC medications can have side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, headache, and fatigue. That means taking these drugs could cause downsides, with little to no benefit.

Combination antihistamine, decongestants, and analgesics (such as Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold and Sinus, Sinutab Sinus, and Sudafed PE Sinus Headache) may not be effective for the common cold either.

Prescription cough medicines

Drugs your doctor prescribes are typically more effective at easing coughs than OTC medicines, but they’re usually considered a last resort when nothing else has helped.

Many prescription cough medicines contain powerful narcotics (opioids), which can cause serious side effects, such as addiction and even death.

Coughs and kids

For adults, taking an OTC cough medicine might not help, but it probably won’t cause much harm.

On the other hand, cough and cold medications containing codeine or hydrocodone are associated with misuse and addiction in teens — and can be deadly for young children.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend the use of any codeine until age 18. Even keeping a product containing opioids in your medicine cabinet may be asking for trouble.

Non-opioid cough medicine also poses serious risks for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against any non-opioid cough medicine for children under the age of 6.  

The FDA cutoff is age 4, and the agency warns parents to take special care to avoid giving kids ages 5 to 11 too much cough medicine, which can cause an overdose. That can happen if a single dose is too big, your child takes the medicine too often, or your child takes more than one product containing the same drug.

A cough will usually clear up in a week or two, once the infection that caused it runs its course. If your child needs relief in the meantime, ask your pediatrician for advice on the best way to treat the cough.

Non-drug cough remedies

You may be just as likely to find an effective cough remedy in your pantry as you are in your medicine cabinet. One study found that a spoonful of buckwheat honey relieved children’s coughs and helped them sleep better than dextromethorphan, an ingredient in cough suppressants.

The only side effects honey caused were mild, such as hyperactivity. Other natural remedies have also been touted for cough relief — including licorice and ginger — although there isn’t any real evidence to show they work.

One easy way to soothe a cough without medicine is to drink more water and other fluids, to help loosen trapped mucus. A cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer may also help.

If you or your child has a cough that lingers for more than a week or two or is severe, call your doctor. A bacterial infection could be the cause and will need to be treated with antibiotics.

It may also be caused by allergies or asthma, or even acid reflux; your child’s doctor will need to treat the underlying problem for the cough to go away. 

Also note that the FDA has not approved any homeopathic remedy typically found at your drug store.


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December 04, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN