What is the difference between a decongestant and expectorant?

An expectorant helps a person cough up phlegm more easily.

Decongestant and expectorant are common terms found in obtaining medications to treat respiratory problems such as colds, infections, and allergies. While medications are often packaged together, each uses different methods to manage the symptoms of a respiratory illness. It is important for patients to remember that while both drugs can help reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms, neither is a cure for an underlying condition.

Decongestants are best at reducing swelling and therefore relieving the symptoms of a sinus headache.

There are several differences between a decongestant and an expectorant, including which part of the respiratory system is treated. Decongestants reduce swelling in the nasal passages, helping to relieve a stuffy nose, sinus headache, and decreased hearing due to excess phlegm in the area. It causes phlegm in the nose and throat to run, making it easier to expel.

Prescription decongestants.

The possible confusion between the two has to do with the increased expulsion of mucus or phlegm that is common with both drugs. Instead of treating the nose and throat, an expectorant attacks phlegm in the lungs. They are often used to treat upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, or pneumonia. By releasing phlegm into the lungs, the expectorant helps the sufferer to cough up mucus and breathe more easily.

The expelled phlegm should be spit out, not swallowed.

Decongestant and expectorant properties are found in combination drugs intended to treat colds. Despite appearing in the same dose, it is important to remember that they are separate medications, intended to treat different symptoms. Decongestant-related products usually contain one of two drugs: pseudophedrine or the milder phenylephrine, although some topical or spray forms use a different drug called oxymetazoline. Expectorant drugs are most commonly derived from the drug guaifenesin.

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Expectorants are usually found in cough syrup.

For those who prefer natural remedies, there are alternative, albeit separate, versions of decongestant and expectorant medications. Ipecacuanha syrup has been a popular expectorant remedy for centuries and was often used to treat whooping cough and bronchitis before the advent of modern drugs. Exposure to strong spices, onions, or smelling salt water can cause a temporary decongestant effect.

Decongestant nasal spray can cause mild nosebleeds as a side effect.

Over-the-counter combination drugs that contain both drugs are extremely common, but not always necessary. Because side effects such as drowsiness tend to increase as more medication is added to a dose, it is often best for patients to take only the medication that addresses their specific symptoms. If a person has a cold that does not include coughing, an expectorant may be unnecessary and may increase the risk of side effects. For serious conditions, medical professionals may prescribe medications that provide a higher dose of needed medications.

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