What is an Expectorant?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An expectorant is something which softens and loosens the mucus in the respiratory tract while also thinning it so that it will be easier to bring up. These medications are used when people have difficulty breathing because they have large amounts of mucus in their respiratory tracts, and to help people recover from coughs. Not all cough medicines contain expectorants, but many do, and they can be a very useful tool for seasonal cold and flu recovery.

Expectorants are used to help people recover from coughs.
Expectorants are used to help people recover from coughs.

Wild cherry bark is an example of an expectorant found in nature, and this herbal medicine has been used for a very long time in the treatment of coughs. The medication guaifenesin is a common ingredient in cough syrups and similar products. Often, an expectorant will be combined with a product which is designed to ease irritation, because the respiratory tract is often irritated and sore when people suffer from a cough.

Some cough syrups contain expectorants, which makes coughs more productive.
Some cough syrups contain expectorants, which makes coughs more productive.

These medications help people cough productively, meaning that they bring up sputum, mucus, and phlegm when they cough. People who suffer from dry coughs and hacking fits sometimes find that an expectorant helps to resolve the cough because it loosens and eliminates the mucus causing all the irritation which leads to coughing. However, this drug is not a cough suppressant; the goal is to help people bring up mucus, not to stop them from coughing. However, when someone's cough is caused by a buildup of mucus, once all the mucus has been expelled with the help of an expectorant, the coughing should stop.

Many expectorants are available over the counter at drug stores, and some are available by prescription. People managing a cough with home care should see a doctor if the coughing becomes severe, the patient has difficulty breathing, or the patient coughs so hard that she or he becomes out of breath. It is also a good idea to see a doctor if a patient experiences an altered level of consciousness, fever, or extreme sluggishness in conjunction with a cough.

Prescriptions should be used as directed, and medications prescribed with them should also be used as directed. If patients experience new symptoms, have difficult breathing, or feel like they are not recovering, it may be advisable to contact a doctor for another appointment to explore the causes of the cough and associated problems a bit more closely. Sometimes a recurrent cough is caused by something other than mucus-related irritation in the airways.

The respiratory tract can become irritated and sore when a person has a cough.
The respiratory tract can become irritated and sore when a person has a cough.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When my daughter was a teenager, she had a real deep cough. The doctor prescribed an expectorant for her. She continued to cough, shaking up her whole body. Then she started to complain that her ribs hurt. Into the doctor again we went - x-rays showed that she had cracked her ribs.

The poor kid had a hacking cough and painful ribs. Nothing could be done about the cracked ribs. They would have to heal on their own. A cough suppressant was prescribed to keep the coughing down so her ribs wouldn't hurt so much. We found other ways to get rid of the mucus and phlegm.


As far as natural expectorants go, horehound is the best for me. It really liquifies mucus trapped in my chest, and I can cough it up without much fuss. It also coats my sore throat well and helps soothe the irritation.

I like to drink tea made from this plant, but the cough drops are great to use in between cups. Since it is a natural remedy, it contains vitamins C, E, F, B-complex, and A, plus potassium and iron. This is probably why I don’t feel as fatigued during a bad cold when I use horehound.

When I read about it years ago before taking it, I found out that research has shown no negative side effects of horehound. Researchers found evidence of a compound that can influence the part of the brain that controls respiration, so horehound really is a naturally perfect treatment for congestion.


Last winter when I spent time out in the snow, got my clothes wet, and did not change for hours, I developed a severe upper respiratory infection. I coughed constantly, and the pain in my chest because of it was unbearable.

I went to the doctor on the second day of my illness, because I could bear it no longer. She prescribed Hycotuss Expectorant. This medicine is a combination of hydrocodone and guaifesnesin.

I could tell that the guaifenesin loosened up the mucus a lot. My coughing became very productive. The hydrocodone helped suppress unnecessary, unproductive coughing while allowing the guaifenesin to do its job of getting the mucus out. It also took the pain out of coughing.


I used guaifenesin to help get rid of nasty mucus that accumulated in my chest during a bout with strep throat. Because I waited five days to go to the doctor, the illness progressed and entered my respiratory tract. The guaifenesin kept me constantly spewing up mucus, as it should have.

I’m not sure if I developed the expectorant side effects listed on the bottle because of the medicine or because of the constant coughing. Probably the headache and dizziness could have come from either, but the nausea and loss of appetite likely came from keeping my stomach muscles contracted in a near-constant cough.

I did read on the bottle that severe reactions could involve a skin rash or trouble breathing. Thankfully, I did not experience either of these.


When I developed bronchitis because I was too stubborn to go to the doctor, I had to use an expectorant. After a week, I could no longer tolerate my symptoms, so I went to my doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and told me to get some over-the-counter Robitussin expectorant.

Well, it definitely kept me coughing, which I’m sure was necessary, but part of the reason I broke down and visited my doctor was because my stomach muscles and rib area hurt so much from all my coughing. It was a miserable time.

While using the expectorant, I coughed up mucus every few minutes. That, combined with the antibiotics, helped me recover quickly. I will say, though, that even if you use an expectorant, bronchitis will leave you with a small amount of phlegm in your tubes for years. After two years, I still have to cough up some stuff every morning.


@SailorJerry - Yeah, that's good stuff. During my last pregnancy, I had a bad cough and my doctor actually prescribed codeine/guaifenesin for me. He said I shouldn't take it too much or too close to delivery (wouldn't want the baby to be born with codeine in its bloodstream) but that otherwise it was fine and that I needed to be able to sleep at night.

Guaifenesin, just the expectorant, is also sometimes used by women trying to get pregnant. It softens, thins, and loosens all the body's mucus, not in your nose and throat, so it can help women who don't have good cervical fluid. But if you're taking it for that purpose, make sure it's just the plain guaifenesin. If it has a decongestant in it, you'll be working against yourself. (Antihistamine is even worse. If you're trying to get pregnant and you take and antihistamine, you might want to talk to your doctor about it and/or do some research).


If you don't get relief from just an expectorant, you can ask your doctor to prescribe something that's basically Robitussin (guaifenesin) and codeine. The codeine will help with the pain of your sore throat and is a really effective cough suppressant.

I only take it when I'm really sick, of course, because codeine is a narcotic and it can really knock you out. But sometimes you just need to rest and heal and to stop coughing already!

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