Background: Cough-suppressant therapy, previously termed nonspecific antitussive therapy, incorporates the use of pharmacologic agents with mucolytic effects and/or inhibitory effects on the cough reflex itself. The intent of this type of therapy is to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of coughing on a short-term basis.
Methods: Data for this review were obtained from several National Library of Medicine (PubMed) searches (from 1960 to 2004), which were performed between May and September 2004, of the literature published in the English language, limited to human studies, using combinations of the search terms "cough," "double-blind placebo-controlled," "antitussive," "mucolytic," "cough clearance," "common cold," "protussive," "guaifenesin," "glycerol," and "zinc."
Results: Mucolytic agents are not consistently effective in ameliorating cough in patients with bronchitis, although they may be of benefit to this population in other ways. Peripheral and central antitussive agents can be useful in patients with chronic bronchitis, but can have little efficacy in patients with cough due to upper respiratory infection. Some protussive agents are effective in increasing cough clearance, but their long-term effectiveness has not been established. DNase is not effective as a protussive agent in patients with cystic fibrosis. Inhaled mannitol is acutely effective in this patient population, but its therapeutic potential must be investigated further.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that suppressant therapy is most effective when used for the short-term reduction of coughing. Relatively few drugs are effective as cough suppressants.