An expectorant is a medicine you can use when you have a cough that produces mucus. Expectorants help thin the secretions in your airway and loosen up mucus, so you can make your cough more productive. Expectorants are generally safe to use, but it’s important to read labels and speak with your healthcare provider about any possible interactions.
An expectorant is a type of cough medicine used to help clear mucus (phlegm) from your airway. You may take an expectorant to help relieve congestion if you have a cold or the flu. Expectorants are available as standalone drugs or as an ingredient in an all-in-one cold or flu medication.
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Expectorants are used to treat the symptoms of respiratory tract infections. These types of infections include the common cold, bronchitis and pneumonia. These infections can cause a buildup of mucus in your throat and lungs. You may develop a cough and your chest may hurt due to mucus accumulation. Expectorants help relieve these symptoms.
Expectorants are used to make coughing up mucus easier. They don’t stop the cough as cough suppressants do. At times, you want a productive cough — you don’t want to subdue (suppress) it. This is because coughing is your body’s way of clearing your airway of bacteria and other germs.
Expectorants lubricate your airway. This helps loosen up the mucus and make the secretions in your airway thinner. By loosening up the mucus, expectorants make your cough more productive. This makes it easier for you to cough up mucus effectively and clear your throat.
Coughing up the mucus can help with the discomfort you may feel from chest congestion. In addition, since the mucus may contain infectious debris such as bacteria and viruses, coughing it up lowers your risk of infection.
Expectorants can be classified as medicinal or natural. The main ingredient in medicinal expectorants helps thin the secretions in your airway. By thinning those secretions, it makes your cough more productive. Medicinal expectorants are available over-the-counter in liquid, pill and tablet forms. Medicinal expectorants include:
Natural expectorants are another option if you’re trying to loosen up mucus and relieve chest congestion. Natural expectorants include:
If you’re taking other medications, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking an expectorant. Expectorants can alter the effects of certain other medications you take. You may have an increased risk of serious side effects as well.
In addition, since expectorants are sometimes combined with other medications, you need to carefully read labels. Certain combination cold and flu medications contain ingredients that may be harmful to you. For instance, some combination medications contain phenylephrine. Phenylephrine can cause high blood pressure and a slow heart rate (bradycardia). Also, phenylephrine may interact with antidepressants and heart medications.
Expectorants usually don’t cause serious side effects. But the different types of expectorants do have various potential side effects.
Guaifenesin is typically safe to use if taken as directed. Potential side effects of guaifenesin can include:
Side effects with potassium iodide are more likely and possibly more severe. The side effects of potassium iodide can include:
Menthol is usually safe unless you’re allergic to it. If you’re having an allergic reaction to menthol, the possible side effects can include:
The possible side effects of ivy leaf extract can include:
Expectorants combined with other medications, such as all-in-one cold or flu medication, are more likely to cause side effects. These side effects can include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Having a cough is no fun. But sometimes it’s important to clear out extra mucus and the bacteria and particles that come with it. That’s where expectorants come in. Taking an expectorant will help thin and clear your airway, creating a more productive cough. In no time, the cough should be gone and you’ll be feeling better. Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if your cough lingers or you have other concerns. And always read the labels of expectorants for possible interactions or side effects.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/19/2021.
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