The cough reflex occurs when irritants invade the throat and lungs, sending messages from receptors or nerve endings in the airways to a center in the brain stem, which triggers the cough. Different coughs can indicate different conditions requiring different treatments. KidsHealth, therefore, recommends calling the child’s pediatrician before using medication to suppress a cough. Over-the-counter cough medicines come in the form of antitussives or mucolytics, also called expectorants.
Compound Cough Preparations
Some cough medications contain a mixture of drugs in amounts that are too small to be effective. Others combine ingredients that counteract the effects of one another, such as cough suppressants, which can cause retention of mucus combined with expectorants, which increase mucus. According to KidsHealth, over-the-counter combination medications tend to produce more side effects because of the risk of having too much of one mediation.
Liquid cough preparations contain soothing substances to relieve the cough, such as sucrose or glycerol, a syrupy alcohol based substance, and moisturizing agents designed to relieve throat irritation. These medications may also help loosen increased bronchial secretions, during a cold. Cough syrups can also be a combination of an antitussive and an expectorant.
Mucolytics alter the consistency of bronchial secretions, making it easier to cough up. Some mucolytics may be effective, but they can also cause irritation and trigger a reflex narrowing of the airways, which makes breathing difficult. Guaifenesin is an over-the-counter mucolytic. According to KidsHealth, mucolytics should only be given upon the recommendation of the child's physician.
According to KidsHealth, cough lozenges can be given to older children, but should be avoided for children younger than 3 as they can become a choking hazard. Even for older children, cough lozenges should only be given upon the recommendation of a physician.