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What is a Mucolytic?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A mucolytic is a drug that acts to break down thick mucus. There are a number of prescription drugs with mucolytic effects, and people can also access some mucolytics over the counter. These drugs are typically used in the treatment of respiratory ailments when someone is having difficulty breathing because of a buildup of mucus in the trachea and lungs.

Some mucolytics have enzymes that tease apart the proteins in mucus. They can also contain muscle relaxants that make it easier for sufferers to cough and bring the mucus up. People taking these drugs should notice that their mucus becomes thinner, usually very quickly, allowing it to drain more freely. This should make breathing easier by providing a way for the body to eliminate the excess mucus.

Mucus is made in the body in response to inflammation and irritation. As mucus builds up, people may experience difficulty breathing and often develop coughs as the body attempts to expel the mucus. If the mucus is too thick, only robust coughing will bring it up, and a patient may become sore and develop a raspy throat as a result of all the coughing. Shutting down mucus production is not desired, because it is serving a function, but thinning the mucus with this drug to help the body get rid of it can be beneficial.

Some cough medicine comes with a mucolytic in the ingredients so that when people cough, it will be more productive. People can also purchase standalone mucolytics, also known as expectorants, if they are experiencing mucus buildups that are making it difficult to breathe or are triggering painful coughing. These drugs can also be prescribed and may be used on hospitalized patients with too much mucus in their airways and lungs.

People should follow the administration directions for an expectorant carefully. While these drugs are generally not harmful, it is important to use a consistent dosing schedule and to be aware of the risks of mixing medications. Over-the-counter drugs may not provide a complete list of potential drug interactions. A doctor or pharmacist can be consulted to get information about whether or not an expectorant is safe for use, and how to use it.

If coughing persists, extreme difficulty breathing is experienced, or the patient develops other new symptoms, a doctor should be consulted. It can be helpful to bring in labels or bottles of any medications used in the treatment of a cough.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By MrsPrince — On Jun 17, 2011

@JBenton Yes there are, such as Stoneroot. But because herbs are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs, it's important to be vigilant about the quality of the herbs you receive. And it's crucial to mention any herb/supplement use to your doctor.

By JBenton — On Jun 15, 2011

Are there mucolytic herbs that serve the same purpose?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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