Experts don’t recommend taking most cough syrups to help with symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis. They can make it difficult to clear the built-up mucus in the airways of your lungs.

Although asthma and bronchitis are two distinct conditions that affect your lungs, people with asthma are more susceptible to bronchitis. Asthmatic bronchitis causes symptoms such as:

  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • wheezing
  • excessive mucus production
  • fever
  • fatigue

Before you reach for the cough syrup to help relieve your symptoms, here’s what you need to know about over-the-counter (OTC) cough medications when treating asthmatic bronchitis.

Experts typically don’t recommend taking cough syrup for asthmatic bronchitis. Many OTC cough medications are designed to quiet the cough reflex. Rather than helping, this can sometimes make it more difficult to relieve asthma cough.

When you have asthma, your lungs are sensitive to triggers like irritants and allergens. Coughing is your lung’s way of trying to clear these substances. Your lungs produce mucus (phlegm), which you then try to clear by coughing.

You produce excess mucus during an asthma attack. This mucus accumulates and pools in your lungs and airways, making it hard to breathe.

Most cough medications contain ingredients that stop you from coughing. If you have asthma and take these medications, it may be harder to clear your lungs and airways.

Cough variant asthma

Some people with asthma have a dry rather than a wet cough. This is known as cough variant asthma (CVA).

Like the more common form of asthma, CVA causes inflammation in the airways. It can also cause a whistling or wheezing sound in your chest when you cough or breathe. Since cough syrup does not alleviate inflammation, CVA is not usually treated with OTC cough medications.

Read the labels

It helps to read cough syrup labels and to know how their ingredients work. Some common active ingredients are:

  • Dextromethorphan: This ingredient is in a class of medications called antitussives. It stops coughs by decreasing activity in your brain’s cough center. But it’s not an expectorant, meaning it doesn’t address the root causes of coughing or alleviate congestion.
  • Guaifenesin: This expectorant helps you bring up more mucus, reducing chest congestion. Guaifenesin is an ingredient in some medications that also contain bronchodilators, like theophylline or ephedrine. Together, these combinations can help asthmatic cough.
  • Codeine: People sometimes use this opioid narcotic and antitussive to treat cough when other treatments don’t work, but its label indicates that people with severe asthma should not take it. Experts believe it could trigger an exacerbation, but a 2022 study suggests it may not.

Research from 2020 suggests that the ingredient ambroxol can help relieve symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis. While available over the counter in many countries, it is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.

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If you have a bronchial asthma cough, talk with a healthcare professional about the best ways to alleviate it. In some cases, they may prescribe medications or other treatments that will provide relief.

Medications

Your regular asthma medications may be the best way to manage excess coughing in asthma. A healthcare professional may recommend you take several types simultaneously. These include:

  • Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs): SABAs are fast-acting bronchodilators, like albuterol inhalers, that clear out mucus and help open the airways in your lungs.
  • Long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs): LABAs can also help manage asthma symptoms like cough. LABAs like salmeterol and formoterol tend to be combined with corticosteroids.
  • Corticosteroid inhalers: Steroids like fluticasone or budesonide work by reducing inflammation and swelling of the airways.
  • Anticholinergics: These medications reduce inflammation and alleviate mucus production.
  • Leukotriene antagonists: Daily preventatives like montelukast (Singulair) and zafirlukast (Accolate) can help manage chronic asthma symptoms such as cough. They’re not intended for use during an asthma exacerbation.

While viruses usually cause bronchitis, a bacterial infection may sometimes be responsible. If a healthcare professional suspects a bacterial infection, they may also prescribe antibiotics.

Other treatments

Avoiding the triggers that make you cough can help reduce your symptoms. These triggers vary, and may include:

  • pet dander
  • pollen
  • cold air
  • mold
  • cigarette smoke and other types of smoke

If your cough is mild, you may wish to try at-home treatments. Sometimes, these are enough to provide relief. But don’t use at-home treatments instead of your prescribed medications, especially if you’re having an asthma attack.

At-home treatments to try include:

Some people with asthma say that hot beverages are more effective if you don’t add milk or creamer.

Can I take Robitussin if I have asthma?

One of the active ingredients in Robitussin is dextromethorphan. Experts don’t recommend this ingredient for people with asthma.

Can people with asthma take cough drops?

Cough drops and products like throat lozenges contain a variety of ingredients. Some, like menthol, benzocaine, and phenol, cool or numb your throat. They won’t cure an asthma cough but may help you feel comfortable.

Others contain ingredients that suppress coughs, like dextromethorphan. You should avoid these if you have asthma.

What OTC cough medicines can help with asthma?

No specific OTC cough medication is indicated as being beneficial for asthma. You may, however, get relief from OTC asthma treatments such as EpiMist (epinephrine), a bronchodilator.

OTC cough medications are not a recommended treatment for asthmatic bronchitis. Talk with a healthcare professional about treatments that can provide relief. These include fast-acting bronchodilator inhalers and corticosteroid inhalers.