Decongestant and expectorant are common terms found when obtaining medication to treat respiratory problems such as colds, infections, and allergies. While the medications are often packaged together, they each use different methods to manage the symptoms of a respiratory illness. It is important for patients to remember that, while both medications can help reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms, neither is a cure for an underlying illness.
There are several differences between a decongestant and expectorant, including what 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 makes phlegm in the nose and throat runnier, making it easy to expel.
The possible confusion between the two has to do with the increase of mucus or phlegm expulsion that is common with both medications. 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 loosening the phlegm in the lungs, an expectorant helps a sick person cough up the mucus and breathe easier.
Both decongestant and expectorant properties are found in combination drugs meant to treat colds. Despite appearing in the same dose, it is important to remember that they are separate medications meant to treat different symptoms. Decongestant-related products typically contain one of two drugs: pseudophedrine or the more mild phenylephrine, though some topical or spray forms use a different drug called oxymetazoline. Expectorant medications derive most commonly from the drug guaifenesin.
For those who prefer natural remedies, there are alternative though separate versions of both decongestant and expectorant medications. Syrup of ipecac has been a folk remedy version of an expectorant for centuries, and was often used to treat whooping cough and bronchitis before the advent of modern drugs. Exposure to strong spices, onions, or snorting saltwater can all cause a temporary decongestant effect.
Over-the-counter combination drugs that have both medications are extremely common, but not always necessary. Since side effects such as drowsiness tend to increase as more medications are added to a dose, it's usually best for patients to take only the medicine 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 drugs that provide a higher dose of necessary medications.