If you choose to medicate your cold without seeing a doctor, an over-the-counter cough medicine may lessen your symptoms. You need to try to determine whether your cough is coming from nasal or chest congestion. This is important in being able to find an over-the-counter medicine that will help, because the location of the congestion determines the type of medicine you should be taking. Most cough medicines are designed to target specific symptoms, so you need to find a medicine that matches your symptoms.
A decongestant is a type of over-the-counter cough medicine that attempts to relieve coughing by easing congestion in the sinus passages. Most of these medications contain either pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine are available without a prescription, but in most jurisdictions, some controls are usually in place. Often these medicines are kept behind the counter and customers must sign for them before purchasing. Side effects associated with decongestants vary depending on the specific medication, but may include drowsiness, nervousness, and rapid heart beat.
Cough suppressants are cough medicines designed to control the cough reflex. These medications can be especially helpful for those who are unable to sleep due to coughing. One drawback, however, is that sometimes taking a cough suppressant can cause congestion to actually worsen, because the act of coughing is one of the ways the body rids itself of excess mucus. In addition, stifling the coughing reflex can cause mucus to thicken, which can result in a common cold escalating into a more serious condition such as bronchitis. Drowsiness is one of the most common side effects associated with cough suppressants.
Expectorants are cough medicines that work by breaking up mucus, making coughs more productive. Most expectorants contain guaifenisin, which is an ingredient that thins mucus, making it less irritating and easier to expel. Those who choose an over-the-counter cough medicine that contains guaifenisin often experience frequent and prolonged periods of coughing, but this often results in shortening the duration of cold symptoms. One of the main concerns with taking an expectorant is the risk of becoming dehydrated, so plenty of water should be consumed while taking these medications.
If you are unable to get relief from an over-the-counter cough medicine, or your symptoms last for more than a week, it is probably time to see a doctor. Lingering colds can sometimes escalate into more serious conditions such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or respiratory infections. These conditions often require more aggressive treatments such as antibiotics or prescription cough medicines.