Antitussives, also known as cough suppressants, help prevent coughing by working on a part of the brain that controls the action.

Coughing is an innate reflex and part of the immune system’s response to get rid of foreign objects. Antitussives help suppress the urge to cough.

This article reviews uses for antitussives, including different types, who might need them, and more.

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Antitussives may provide cough relief in people over 18 years old. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve their use in children or people under the age of 18 due to their ineffectiveness and potential side effects.

Adults may use antitussives to treat an acute cough, which is a cough lasting less than 2 weeks. The cough may be due to an underlying infection, such as an upper respiratory tract infection or the common cold.

For coughs that last longer than 2 weeks or that do not improve with medication, a person should consider contacting a doctor. They can help diagnose the cause of the cough and provide additional treatment if over-the-counter (OTC) medications are not working.

Learn more about cough medication.

There are numerous oral antitussives. Dextromethorphan is an oral antitussive that a person can obtain over the counter. Codeine is a type of antitussive that a doctor may prescribe.

According to a 2016 review of antitussive effectiveness in people with chronic coughs, only about one-third to one-half of people experienced symptom relief from the morphine the liver converts from codeine.

More research into the effectiveness of codeine for acute coughs is necessary.

The same review noted that dextromethorphan is the only antitussive that demonstrated effectiveness in suppressing an acute cough.

Topical versions of antitussives include camphor and menthol. According to a 2022 review, several studies have shown the aromas from camphor and menthol can help alleviate several symptoms of the common cold, which can include coughing.

In particular, they cite evidence that suggests menthol may be helpful for coughing while camphor may help with both nasal congestion and nocturnal cough.

They conclude that products containing these ingredients may be helpful for people with cold symptoms and those that cannot tolerate other cold medications.

It is important to note, however, that the study received funding from Procter and Gamble UK, which may have a monetary interest in the results.

If a person does not wish to use oral or topical antitussives, they may find relief from a cough by using honey, as it coats the throat, which can help prevent coughing. This may be a more suitable option for both adults and young children over 1 year old.

Learn about natural cough remedies.

Antitussives may provide effective relief from an acute cough associated with several different infections or underlying conditions.

Only adults aged 18 and older should take oral antitussives, such as dextromethorphan and codeine. Both adults and children may be able to use topical ointments containing camphor or menthol. However, they may not be suitable for use with very young children. It is best for a person to contact a pharmacist or doctor for advice before administering topical antitussives to children.

It is also best for a person to consider contacting a doctor before taking antitussives if they:

  • have a cough that lasts longer than 2 weeks
  • take other medications
  • have other underlying conditions
  • have other symptoms, such as fever or coughing up mucus or blood

A doctor can help advise what options may work best for the individual.

Taking antitussives will vary based on the formula and type. Oral antitussives involve swallowing the medication, often as a syrup, while topical antitussives involve rubbing the medicated cream or ointment onto the skin.

A person should follow all instructions from a doctor or pharmacist when taking oral medications. They should also read and follow instructions on any OTC medication.

Doses and dosages for oral medications can vary, so a person should make sure they know how much to take and how frequently they should take it.

People with sensitive skin may want to speak with a doctor or pharmacist before applying topical antitussives.

If the cough persists for more than 2 weeks or if it worsens even with treatment, a person should contact a doctor for advice.

Side effects of antitussives depend on the type a person uses.

Codeine can cause several side effects, including:

Some possible side effects of dextromethorphan include:

A rash is a possible serious side effect of dextromethorphan. A person should seek immediate medical advice if they develop a rash.

Topical solutions may cause irritation to the skin or an allergic reaction.

It is important to contact a doctor if a person experiences any new, persistent, or severe side effects.

Here are some frequently asked questions about antitussives.

What are antitussives used for?

Antitussives may help provide relief from an acute cough in adults.

What is the best antitussive?

Evidence suggests that dextromethorphan is the most effective antitussive for an acute cough. However, children should not take the medication, and adults should follow dosing instructions carefully. It is best to consult a pharmacist or doctor for advice before taking antitussives.

What are the most common antitussives?

For adults, the most common antitussives include products containing dextromethorphan or codeine. Codeine requires a prescription, but a person can find OTC products containing dextromethorphan.

For children, topical rubs and honey may be effective methods to help with coughing.

Antitussives may provide relief from coughs that may occur due to various underlying infections or conditions. Oral antitussives include dextromethorphan and codeine. A person can find dextromethorphan over the counter, but they will need a prescription for codeine.

Children should not take oral antitussives but may find some relief with honey or topical ointments.

If a cough does not respond to over-the-counter antitussives, or if the cough gets worse, it is best to contact a doctor for advice.