Cough Medicines: Perscription Vs Over The Counter Medications

Learn how prescription formula cough medicines differ from over the counter remedies.

Where do you seek comfort for a cough that is wearing you down, not allowing you to sleep at night, and hurting your chest with each effort of exhalation?Do you stop and see the doctor, or head over to the neighborhood pharmacy for quick fix?Whatever you decide to do will depend on your symptoms.All cough medicines contain roughly similar ingredients but differ in the strength and particular substances used.The potential levels of toxicity are the distinguishing characteristics of prescription medication.

Prescription cough medicines are those prescribed by your doctor to treat your cough symptoms and dispensed by a pharmacist.Because they have stronger and longer-lasting effects, prescription remedies are intended to treat more severe cough symptoms than over the counter medicines.Prescription cough medications are not safe for consumer use as they contain addictive ingredients that are toxic to the consumer with misuse.Narcotics are used in prescription-strength cough formulas.

Nonprescription cough formulas, also known as over the counter, do not require a doctor's prescription for use.Over the counter medicines are safe for the consumer, provided the consumer heeds the warnings and directions for use in the packaging of the medicine.Nonprescription medications are short-acting and treat mild to moderate symptoms.Depending on the type of cough medication used, some formulas can cause drowsiness.Many cough remedies available to consumers today used to be considered prescription-formula only.Over the counter cough remedies will typically contain other ingredients that treat symptoms other than the cough.Thus, over the counter drugs treat symptoms and non-symptoms alike.


Indiscriminate of whether a remedy is prescription or over the counter, cough medicines are divided into two major types.Each type has distinct properties and ingredients that act on a specific symptom of the cough.Each type can also be classified as to whether it is prescription or over the counter strength.The first type is called expectorants.Expectorants treat moist coughs by loosening the mucus in the lining of the lung so that it results in a productive cough.The second type is the cough suppressant, also called antitussives.Antitussives act on a central nervous system pathway to suppress the cough reflex.Cough suppressants are used on dry, hacking coughs.

The main ingredient of expectorants is guaifenesin.Guaifenesin is mixed in with syrup, the demulcent, which coats and soothes the throat.Expectorants come prescription and over the counter formulas.Over the counter expectorants include Robitussin, Dimetapp, and Benadryl.Prescription varieties contain stronger doses of guaifenesin.Ztuss is an example of a prescription expectorant.

The main ingredient of antitussives is dextromethorphan.Over the counter varieties of this cough medicine contain only dextromethorphan.Examples of over the counter cough suppressants include Robitussin DM, Drixoral, and Pertussin CS.Prescription varieties often include narcotics to treat severe coughs that interfere with sleep.The narcotic typically prescribed by doctors is codeine.Codeine is an analgesic that has sedative effects and relieves pain by drying the mucus in the respiratory system.Hydrocodone is another narcotic typically included in prescription-formula cough suppressants.Hydrocodone acts in the same way as codeine but is more effective than codeine.Hydcodan, Tussigon, and Mycodene are examples of prescription antitussives.

Cough medicines are not without side effects.The toxic effect depends on the type of medication and whether or not it is over the counter or prescription strength.Both prescription and over the counter cough remedies can induce drowsiness, vomiting, and upset stomach.Narcotics are addictive if taken excessively, and its dosage must be tightly controlled by a doctor.Often, the effects of the narcotics may be muted by the addition of other ingredients.Homotropine is often included in prescription cough suppressants to temper the addictive affects of hydrocodone.Cough suppressants may also cause problems if taken in conjunction with other drugs.For example, antitussives affect the function of MAO inhibitors.Any side effects associated with prescription and over the counter drugs should be printed on the packaging.If you are in doubt, consult a pharmacist.

Over the counter cough medications came into the market mainly due to cost.Medications used to be physician-prescribed.Because of the rising costs of prescription medications, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the switching of non-toxic medications to over the counter if the medication was deemed safe for consumers to use without a doctor's discretion.Medicines such as Dimetapp were then switched to over the counter as a result.

The cough remedy that you choose to use will depend entirely on your symptoms.Generally, prescription formulas treat only the symptoms for your cough.Over the counter formulas will treat the symptoms of the cough and other ailments.Over the counter cough remedies are meant only as temporary relief; they do not cure the cough itself.If the cough is severe, or if over the counter medications fail to alleviate your symptoms, a prescription medication may be necessary.With careful attention to the use of over the counter and prescription formula medications, you can avoid abusing the medications and even feel better in a few days.

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