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Difference Between Cough Suppressant and Expectorant

A cough suppressant is medicine that works to inhibit coughing. An expectorant is medicine that works by thinning mucus so that it can be easily coughed up.

What is Cough Suppressant?


A cough suppressant is a type of medication that works to reduce coughing by acting on the cough reflex; these medications are also referred to as antitussives. This reflex is a way for the body to get rid of secretions in the airways and lungs, and so has a protective function; coughing can, however, be excessive and not useful in certain conditions.

Ingredients and activity:

Most cough suppressant medicines have the substance dextromethorphan, which acts to suppress or inhibit the coughing reflex by affecting this region in the medulla oblongata of the brain. Prescription cough suppressant medications often have codeine present in addition to dextromethorphan. The codeine acts as a pain reliever. In some cough medications, diphenhydramine HCL is also an ingredient along with the dextromethorphan; this is because some coughs are caused by allergies and this medicine, the diphenhydramine, is an antihistamine. Pain killers like codeine do help reduce the coughing reflex as well, but similar to other opioids, the risk of dependency is high and thus it is not recommended for long term use.


Cough suppressants are recommended only for a cough that does not involve a lot of mucus but rather is from irritation. This is often called a dry cough since not much mucus is present. Suppressants, similar to expectorants are used to treat certain problems related to the respiratory tract. Sinusitis and the common cold are examples where a cough may not result in much mucus but rather be due to inflammation and irritation of the airways. A person should always consult with their doctor if they are coughing so that the correct type of medication is used.

Side effects:

Side effects that can occur if you take a cough suppressant include feeling dizzy or very tired, feeling nauseated and becoming constipated. 

What is Expectorant?


An expectorant is a medicine that works to thin mucus in the lungs and bronchi so that it can be more easily coughed up. It is easy to confuse an expectorant with a suppressant since both are cough medications.

Ingredients and activity:

The primary ingredient in expectorants is guaifenesin, which works by making the mucus more watery ; this then makes it thinner and, therefore, easier to cough up. Studies have shown that medicine with the ingredients, bromhexine, salbutamol and guaifenesin, are most effective for treating coughs associated with bronchitis or asthma.


A cough expectorant medication is recommended when a person has a wet cough, in other words, they are producing a lot of mucus. This is important since the mucus makes a person feel very congested and the mucus also traps foreign particles including pathogens; therefore, removing this mucus from the lungs is helpful when a person has an infection. The use of expectorants is particularly important for people who have cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis, in which the mucus is excessive and poses a problem, increasing the risk of worsening of the illness in each case.

Side effects:

Expectorants, like most medicines, have side effects. Some can be unpleasant and, in the case of an expectorant can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or drowsiness. 

Difference between Cough suppressant and Expectorant?


A cough suppressant is a medication that suppresses or reduces a cough. An expectorant is a medication that actually makes it easier to cough up mucus.


Dextromethorphan is the suppressant but codeine and diphenhydramine are also often added to cough suppressant medicine. Guaifenesin is the expectorant but additional ingredients in an expectorant medicine, also often include bromhexine, and salbutamol.


Cough suppressant medication acts on the coughing reflex so the person coughs less. An expectorant medication acts to water down mucus so that it is easier for a person to cough up.


A suppressant is a medicine used to treat what are called dry coughs, in which there is not an excess of mucus present. An expectorant is a medicine used to treat wet coughs, which is the type of cough where too much mucus is present and needs to be expelled.

Side effects

Dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and constipation are all potential side effects of cough suppressant medicine. Dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are all possible side effects of expectorant medication.

Table comparing Cough suppressant and Expectorant

Summary of Cough suppressant Vs. Expectorant

  • Cough suppressants and expectorants are both types of medicines that people take when they have a cough.
  • A suppressant helps stop excessive coughing but is only used where there is little mucus, and a dry cough.
  • An expectorant works to help you cough and expel excess mucus, which is why it is recommended to use for a wet cough.
  • Knowing which cough medicine to use is difficult, and it is best to consult a doctor who can determine the cause of a cough and, thus, the best medication to choose.

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References :

[0]Consolini, Debra M. “Cough in Children”. Merckmanuals. Merck & Co., 2020, https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/symptoms-in-infants-and-children/cough-in-children

[1]Prabhu, S. Shankar, et al. "Efficacy, safety and tolerability of salbutamol+ guaiphenesin+ bromhexine (Ascoril) expectorant versus expectorants containing salbutamol and either guaiphenesin or bromhexine in productive cough: a randomised controlled comparative study." Journal of the Indian Medical Association 108.5 (2010): 313-4.

[2]Taylor, James A., et al. "Efficacy of cough suppressants in children." The Journal of pediatrics 122.5 (1993): 799-802.

[3]Image credit: https://live.staticflickr.com/8576/16383347901_edfb22d523_b.jpg

[4]Image credit: https://live.staticflickr.com/8608/16220058261_2d2a124ce9_b.jpg

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