Ask the Pharmacist – Coughs


Most pre-schoolers and children of primary school age can have between three to eight coughs per year, often occurring one after the other. Not great for your child’s sleep patterns, or for parents on the receiving end of a barking monitor!

Coughs are basically a reflex action in order to clear the throat of mucus or foreign irritants. However frequent coughing usually indicates the presence of a viral or bacterial illness.

Broadly speaking most coughs can be classified as chesty/mucus productive coughs or dry/tickly unproductive coughs. Productive coughs can be useful in that they help clear away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat.

In recent years the management of coughs in children in the UK has changed. Both chesty and dry coughs in children aged three months to six years old are treated with simple glycerol-based cough syrups to help soothe symptoms. Note honey is not suitable for children aged under one year old.

A larger range of cough medicines are available for those over six years old. Medicines called expectorants can help thin mucus and phlegm in chesty coughs. The most common of these expectorants is guaifenesin, and is found in many OTC chesty cough remedies.

Dry coughs in the over six’s can be relieved with cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan. Brands of cough bottle include Benylin and Tixylix among others – speak to your pharmacist who can recommend the most appropriate mixture for the cough.

If your child has other symptoms apart from a cough, you can look out for bottles which contain a mixture of ingredients such as an antihistamine for a runny nose, or a decongestant for a blocked nose. Please note that some mixtures may contain an analgesic such as paracetamol or ibuprofen so cannot be used alongside other preparations that contain these!

Most coughs will clear up within a week or two. However your child may need to see their doctor if the cough is persistent, accompanied by wheeze, high temperature, vomiting, experience persistent night-time wakening (may be a sign of asthma), a ‘whooping’ noise at the end of the cough or difficulty breathing.  Your GP will sound the chest and determine whether antibiotics, inhaled medicines or steroids may be warranted. As many coughs are caused by viruses, antibiotics can be ineffective in some cases and OTC cough remedies, keeping the child hydrated and in a humid environment may be all that is required until symptoms resolve.

Richard Dunn is a community pharmacist with Gordons Chemists. 

The content of this article is for general information only. The information is not for diagnostic purposes and should not be treated as such. You must not rely on the information in this column as an alternative to medical advice from your GP or other professional healthcare provider.

Established in 1980, Gordons Chemists are an independently owned retail pharmacy chain with nine pharmacies in Scotland. Find your local Gordons store at 1 Gracemount Drive, Edinburgh, EH16 6RR or 105 High Street, Musselburgh, EH21 7DA

Products described are available at most pharmacies and Gordons Chemists does not endorse any individual product.  Always consult your pharmacist in relation to your individual symptoms. If you have a question for Richard email

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