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How Does Cough Syrup Work?

Understanding Cough Treatment

Dr. Amy Shah Profile Photo

Written by Dr. Amy Shah on June 2, 2021

Cough syrup can sometimes feel like a potion that you give your kid that in a few hours magically gets rid of their cough. As an integrative physician, advisor and partner to Genexa, I believe it’s critical that patients know what’s in the medicine they are giving their kids. This article will explain the “magic” behind kids’ cough syrup and break down the different active ingredients in cough syrup that help your little one breathe easy.

Cough Overview

Before diving into the specifics of cough syrup, it’s important to take a look at coughs in general so you can figure out what type of cough your kid has and what the best form of treatment might be.

What causes a cough?

The simplest answer to the question “what causes a cough?” is: lots of things.

Anytime you cough, it’s your body’s natural response to some form of irritation in your respiratory system. The logic behind a cough is that your body can use the burst of air to remove whatever it is that’s causing the irritation. Basically, a cough does for your lungs what a sneeze does for your nose.

At this point you might be thinking, what exactly can cause irritation? Irritation in your lungs can be caused by pollution in the air, dust, or smoke. If your little one is fighting off a virus or a bacterial infection, then the irritation is probably mucus or cold, dry air. Usually coughs are divided into two main categories: acute and chronic. The only thing you need to know about these two descriptors is that acute coughs last less than three weeks while chronic coughs last longer than four weeks in kids.

There’s a wide range of illnesses that cause an acute cough, but some of the more common include:

Although a “chronic cough” might sound scary, there are lots of common, very treatable illnesses that can cause a chronic cough such as:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis

Types of Coughs

Although coughs can be broken into acute and chronic, there’s a few other types of coughs that you should be aware of when trying to decide what form of treatment would be best for your little one.

Wet Cough

A wet cough is sometimes also called a productive cough because it’s one that brings up mucus or phlegm. The most common causes of this type of cough are the common cold and the flu.

If your kid has a wet cough, they might complain about having something stuck in their throat or dripping in the back of their throat.

Dry Cough

A dry cough doesn’t bring up mucus and often feels like it comes with a tickle in your throat that you just can’t shake.

If it sounds like your kid is hacking or experiencing long coughing fits, the odds are that they have a dry cough.

Croup Cough

One of the most severe types of cough that your child can have is croup cough. Normally, kids under the age of five get croup.

The easiest way to know if your kid has croup cough is if their laugh sounds kind of like a bark, and their breathing sounds squeaking and labored.

Although the other types of coughs can be treated with either cough suppressants or expectorants, croup cough needs more serious medical attention. If you think your kid has croup, it’s a good idea to call your doctor immediately.

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough got its name from the distinct sound of the cough.

If your kid has a whooping cough, their cough will have an intense hacking sound that’s followed by a big inhale of air that makes the “whoop” sound. Usually, whooping cough just needs to run its course for older children, but you can ease your little one’s symptoms with cough syrup.

Understanding Cough Syrup

When it comes to treating your kid’s cough, there’s a lot of different options out there. This section provides an overview of two common kinds of cough syrup, cough suppressants and expectorants, and takes a look at how safe it is for kids to have cough syrup in the first place.

What is the difference between a cough suppressant and expectorant?

The main difference between a cough suppressant and an expectorant is how they stop your cough.

Cough suppressants work in the brain stem to stop the cough reflex. Basically, they trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t need to cough, but the icky stuff in your lungs that’s causing the cough remains the same.

On the other hand, expectorants increase the amount of moisture in your mucus, which makes it easier to cough up. The idea with expectorants is that they’ll make the mucus in your lungs easier to cough up which will speed up the amount of time it takes for all of that mucus to be gone, meaning that you’ll have a cough for less time. You can usually spot an expectorant on the shelf because the names end in -tussin or -tussive. Given that this type of medication thins mucus, it only works for wet coughs, so if your little one’s not coughing up phlegm, an expectorant won’t work.

Is cough syrup safe for kids?

The short answer is yes, cough syrup is safe for older kids. That being said, for kids under the age of four, cough syrup isn’t safe.

If your infant or toddler has a cough, it’s a good idea to call your doctor and avoid over-the-counter medications.

It’s also imperative that you buy cough medicine that’s made specifically for kids so that you can get the dosing correct. Given that some cough syrups contain opiates, it’s really important to make sure you’re giving your little one just enough to get rid of their cough.

Genexa’s Kids’ Cough & Chest Congestion

If you’re looking for a clean, kid-friendly cough syrup, Genexa’s Kids’ Cough & Chest Congestion medicine is a great option.

This syrup has two active ingredients that act as an effective cough suppressant and expectorant to help temporarily relieve cough due to minor throat and bronchial irritation from things like the common cold or inhaled irritants. Given that it’s also an expectorant, it can also help loosen phlegm and thin bronchial secretions to rid the bronchial passageways of bothersome mucus and make coughs more productive.

And best of all - it’s clean. Meaning these active ingredients are the same effective ingredients found in many OTC brands, but the formula does not contain any synthetic inactive ingredients that many of those other brands include.


The first active ingredient in Genexa’s cough medicine is dextromethorphan. Even though this word looks a little intimidating, dextromethorphan is really just the name for the medicine that tells your brain to stop sending the signal to cough.

In this way, it’s a really good cough suppressant, but it doesn’t do much to treat the problem that’s causing the cough in the first place.


For that reason, Genexa also included guaifenesin in their cough syrup. This medication is an expectorant, so it thins and loosens mucus in the airways. Guaifenesin is the ingredient you have to thank for clearing your kids’ congestion and allowing them to breathe easier.


The key to understanding how cough syrup works is knowing that there are two main types of cough syrups: cough suppressants and expectorants.

Cough suppressants are great because they trick your brain into stopping the coughing reflex. That being said, they don’t do anything to address the problems that are causing the cough in the first place. Cough suppressants are great for most types of coughs that are really bothering your kid or stopping them from getting a good night’s rest.

In order to really treat the cause of the cough, you can give your kid an expectorant which will thin the mucus in their airways, making it easier for them to cough it up. Luckily, some brands like Genexa make cough syrup that has both a cough suppressant and an expectorant to ease your little one’s cough and treat the problem all in one!


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