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My dad got a terrible cold this winter. His cough was so bad he couldn’t sleep for days and a cough suppressant could have made him feel better.

If you have a cold like my dad, you really want the best cough suppressant, and you want it now!

I’ve already discussed why I recommend pseudoephedrine, a reliable decongestant medicine. This week I’m going to discuss the use of cough suppressants, which are also known as antitussives.

Cough suppressants are an ingredient in many cold and flu remedies at your pharmacy.  These drugs should not be used in children since they are mostly unproven and can be dangerous, so the information below only applies to adults.

Common Questions About Cough

Why Do We Cough?

Cough is a normal reflex to protect our lungs and upper airways from irritants such as smoke and infections. As we cough, we try to get rid of the bad things that have been inhaled into our lungs. A respiratory tract infection like a cold or the flu is the most frequent cause of cough.

What Is A “Normal” Cough When I Have A Cold?

You can get a dry cough soon after getting a cold. This may usually worsen over 1-3 days, but will then begin to improve. You may have a lingering cough for up to two weeks. If your cough doesn’t start to improve as described above, it is a good idea to get checked out by a doctor since a cough can be a symptoms of a more severe problem like pneumonia.

When Should I Use A Cough Suppressant?

Cough suppressants can be tried if you have a cold with a dry cough. On the other hand, if you are coughing up a bunch of phlegm or mucous, then you don’t want to stop coughing because your cough is productive and is helping to clear the phlegm.  Typically I only recommend a cough suppressant for a dry cough when you are really struggling to cope such as having a lack of sleep.

What Is The Best Cough Suppressant?

In my experience, many people respond well to over-the-counter dextromethorphan, often abbreviated as DM. The effectiveness of dextromethorphan can be modest, so make sure you are using an adequate dose and follow the package instructions. If dextromethorphan doesn’t help your cough after a few days of treatment, it is best to see your doctor for a full assessment of your cough. 

To learn about how to best use dextromethorphan in adults, including details on dosing, side-effects, and drug interactions, check out my Ultimate Guide to Curing Your Cold. In this easy to read e-book, I simplify the essential information about how to best treat all your cold symptoms. Finally, after a few sleepless nights, my dad’s cough started to improve. Next time he gets such a bad cough, he’ll go chat with his pharmacist about dextromethorphan.