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Expectorant Vs. Decongestant

Expectorant Vs. Decongestant

Many confuse between decongestants and expectorants. Though the purpose of their use looks similar, there's a difference in their action. This article compares expectorants with decongestants, with an explanation of the working of each of these medications.
Rajib Singha
Among the many diseases that affect people, some of the most common ones include cough, cold and nasal congestion. Cough could be the result of an infection (in most cases), asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or chronic bronchitis. Nasal congestion could be the result of cold, flu, allergies, or sinus infection. Expectorants help relieve cough, while decongestants help in alleviating nasal congestion. These medications do not cure the illness, but do provide symptomatic relief. This HealthHearty article is a comparative analysis of expectorant vs decongestant, which helps you understand the difference between the two.

Points of Difference between Expectorants and Decongestants

Let's begin with the basic meaning of an 'expectorant'. Its standard definition goes like this... 'a medicine that stimulates the act of coughing and spitting out'. In other words, it is a substance which when consumed, helps in making the mucus soft and loose so that it is easier to bring it up from the lungs, bronchi, and trachea to be spat out. An expectorant does nothing but makes coughing more effective thereby, making it more productive. And when cough is productive, it helps in getting rid of the accumulated mucus and the causal pathogen with it as well. When mucus gets accumulated in large amounts in the respiratory tract, it gives rise to chest congestion thus, making breathing difficult. More often than not, an expectorant is combined with another substance that aids in relieving irritation of the respiratory tract. One important point to make a note of, is the fact that an expectorant is different from what is known as a cough suppressant. As the name suggests, the latter inhibits coughing, and it is usually used for dry cough. However, the former helps the patient to bring up mucus and spit it out. So some cough medications contain expectorant, while some, cough suppressants. The following gives you a few home remedies that do the work of expectoration for relieving cough.
  • A mixture of honey and garlic works as an effective natural expectorant. Make a paste of these two ingredients, and add a teaspoon of lemon juice. Consume as required. This mixture helps in breaking up the phlegm thus, making it easier to bring out the sputum and cough it up. An additional benefit of this remedy is that it also acts as an effective decongestant by opening up sinus passages.
  • Licorice is one of the most popular and effective remedies to deal with productive cough. All you have to do is boil a small piece of the plant's root in a cup of water, to make a decoction. Honey can be added to improve the taste. The decoction helps in coating and soothing the irritated throat, and also breaks and loosens up the accumulated phlegm, thereby helping you get rid of it by coughing.
  • Another herbal expectorant is angelica. Simply boil 2-3 whole roots of this herb in a quart of water. Strain the decoction and add honey for taste. Taking 2 tablespoons about 3 times a day helps in making the mucus loose enough to be coughed out.
  • Slippery elm is one natural expectorant which most people vouch for. First, bring about 2 cups of water to boil. Then pour the water on 2 tablespoons of the powdered form of the bark of the elm. Drink thrice a day. Its expectorant property comes from the fact that it causes mucus and phlegm to take the shape of a ball thus, making it easier to cough it up. This remedy also soothes inflammation.
A nasal decongestant is a medication that helps in relieving nasal congestion. Such a congestion is mainly caused by the swelling of nasal tissues and blood vessels. And due to this swelling, mucus is produced in amounts more than required thus, causing congestion. What a decongestant does is that it helps in reducing the swelling thereby, lessening excess production of mucus. This it does by narrowing the blood vessels. This medicine can be obtained over-the-counter or availed through prescription, and comes as a liquid, a tablet or as a nasal spray. Liquid or pill decongestants are taken orally, while sprays are used in the nose. Using sprays has comparatively lesser side effects than those which oral medications have. However, nasal sprays are okay for short-term use only, for their prolonged use can actually make the congestion more severe that what it was before. Some popular home remedies using natural decongestants may include:
  • One simple home remedy that may serve as a natural nasal decongestant is inhaling steam. Pour some boiling water in a large bowl. Place a large towel over your head, which should also drape the vessel. Inhale the trapped steam by taking deep breaths. The same method also serves as a natural expectorant
  • Make a mix of salt (1/4 tsp.), baking soda (1/4 tsp.), and water (8 ounces). Stir well and pour the solution in a nasal dropper. Closing one nostril, squirt the dropper into the other and inhale deeply ensuring the solution reaches the sinus cavities. Thereafter, blow your nose gently and repeat for the other nostril.
  • Prepare some black tea, as usual, and add half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper in it. The active ingredient in the pepper, that is capsaicin, helps in reducing swelling and inflammation. So drinking the tea will soothe the nasal passages, and make the mucus thin and loose thus, stimulating drainage, and clearing up the congestion.
To conclude, so what's the difference between a decongestant and an expectorant? Simply put, an expectorant promotes expectoration i.e. coughing up, while a nasal decongestant reduces nasal congestion.