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Expectorants

Written on June 7, 2018 by C. Fookes, BPharm

Medically reviewed on June 7, 2018

What are Expectorants?

Expectorants are ingredients that increase airway secretions. They do this by increasing the water content of the secretions which decreases their stickiness, making them easier to cough up.

What are expectorants used for?

Expectorants aim to make coughing up mucus easier, they do not actually stop coughing. This is important because a productive cough should not be suppressed because it is the body's way of removing excess mucus, foreign particles, or microorganisms from the airways.

Expectorants also help to relieve chest congestion that occurs because of a cold, the flu, or allergies.

Guaifenesin is mostly used for the treatment of chesty, wet, productive or phlegmy coughs, which typically occur with a cold.

Potassium iodide has been used to increase the water content of secretions and improve breathing in people with conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema.

Research has shown that expectorants are not as effective as mucolytics when used to treat certain respiratory conditions such as COPD.

Expectorants will not treat an infection.

What are the differences between expectorants?

Although guaifenesin and potassium iodide both work by increasing respiratory tract secretions, there are differences in their propensity for side effects.

Side effects are much more likely with potassium iodide, which is the potassium salt form of iodine. Iodine is a trace element, which means that it is only needed by the body in very small amounts, and all trace elements are toxic if consumed at too high a dose for too long a period.

Sometimes people call expectorants mucolytics and vice versa. Although both result in less viscous (sticky) mucus, mucolytics have a different way of working to expectorants and that is by breaking down the bonds within the mucus, thinning it out. Medicines that have a mucolytic action and that are available in the U.S. include acetylcysteine inhalation and dornase alfa. Bromhexine is a mucolytic available internationally.

Generic name Brand name examples
guaifenesin Mucinex, Robitussin Mucus and Chest Congestion, Xpect
potassium iodide iOSTAT

Are expectorants safe?

Guaifenesin is generally well tolerated, and no severe side effects have been reported at recommended dosages. Higher than recommended dosages have resulted in stomach upset and vomiting. Guaifenesin should not be given to children younger than 4.

Potassium iodide has been associated with thyroid problems, high potassium levels in the blood, and iodide poisoning. People who develop neck or throat swelling, chest pain, an irregular heart rate, muscle weakness, tingly in their extremities, a severe headache, an allergic reaction or other unusual side effects should seek immediate medical advice.

It is important to note that even though expectorants have been in use for many years, few studies have been conducted that prove that they work.

For a complete list of severe side effects, please refer to the individual drug monographs.

What are the side effects of expectorants?

Guaifenesin is generally well tolerated at dosages recommended for use as an expectorant. Nausea and vomiting are the most commonly reported side effects; constipation, dizziness, headache, and rash are reported rarely.


Side effects that have been associated with potassium iodide use include:

  • Confusion
  • Excess salivation
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal effects (such as acid reflux, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain)
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Numbness, tingling, pain or weakness in the hands or feet
  • A severe headache
  • Skin sores
  • Sore gums
  • Taste disturbances (including a brassy or metallic taste in the mouth).

For a complete list of side effects, please refer to the individual drug monographs.

List of Expectorants:

Filter by:
Drug NameView by: Brand | Generic Reviews Avg. Ratings
Altarussin
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviews
   
10
Pima
generic name: potassium iodide
1 review
   
10
Mucinex Maximum Strength
generic name: guaifenesin
3 reviews
   
7.7
Mucinex (Pro)
generic name: guaifenesin
98 reviews
   
7.3
Amibid LA
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Balminil Expectorant
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Benylin E
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Bidex-400
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Drituss G
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Guaifenex G
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Guaifenex LA
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Guiatuss
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Hytuss
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Iosat
generic name: potassium iodide
0 reviewsAdd rating
Mucinex for Kids
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Organidin NR (Pro)
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Robitussin Chest Congestion
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Robitussin Mucus + Chest Congestion
generic name: guaifenesin
1 reviewAdd rating
Scot-Tussin Expectorant
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
SSKI (Pro)
generic name: potassium iodide
0 reviewsAdd rating
ThyroShield (Pro)
generic name: potassium iodide
0 reviewsAdd rating
Tussin Expectorant
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating
Xpect
generic name: guaifenesin
0 reviewsAdd rating

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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