Types of cough medicines

Advice about cough and cold medicines for children has changed from 15 August 2012.

  • Cough and cold medicines should not be given to children younger than 6 years old.
  • Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving cough and cold medicines to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Find out more about the different types of cough medicines, how they work and who shouldn’t use them in the table below.

Type of medicine About the medicine Active ingredient(s) in medicine
Demulcents

Demulcents are cough syrups (or cough linctus) that may suppress coughing by forming a protective layer over the throat (pharynx). These can be given to children.

Sugar (sucrose) and glycerol
Mucolytics

Mucolytics are cough medicines that make it easier to cough up mucus. They may help your symptoms if you have long-term (chronic) bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Medicines containing bromhexine should not be given to children younger than 6 years of age. Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Bromhexine or acetylcysteine
Expectorants

Cough expectorants loosen mucus in the respiratory tract, and can be used for coughs that produce mucus (productive coughs). There is little or no information from good quality trials that they are effective for treating coughs in children.

Cough expectorants should not be given to children younger than 6 years of age. Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving to children aged 6 to 11 years. 

Guaifenesin, ammonium chloride, ammonia, senega, sodium citrate or ipecacuanha
Suppressants

Cough suppressants suppress the body's urge to cough. There is little or no information from good quality trials that cough suppressants are effective for treating coughs in children, but they can cause side effects such as drowsiness, nausea, vomiting or constipation.

Cough suppressants containing opioids:

  • should not be given to children younger than 6 years of age. Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving to children aged 6 to 11 years
  • can cause side effects in unborn babies, young babies and children, so women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should ask a doctor or pharmacist before taking any medicine containing codeine
  • can cause breathing problems in some people with a lung condition (e.g. asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]).
Codeine, dextromethorphan, dihydrocodeine, pholcodine, or pentoxyverine

Note about medicine names

Most medicines have two names: the active ingredient and the brand name. The active ingredient is the chemical in the medicine that makes it work. The brand name is the name given to the medicine by its manufacturer. There may be several brands that contain the same active ingredient. This website uses active ingredient names (e.g. amoxycillin), with brand names in brackets and with a capital letter (e.g. Amoxil). We also discuss medicines in groups or ‘classes’ when their effects or actions are very similar.

To find out more about active ingredients and brand names, read our brand choices information.
Always ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice on the most appropriate medicine for you or your child, and always read the medicines label.
References