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How To Treat a Cough
Coughing - An Annoying Symptom
What Causes a Cough?
Coughing is your body's natural way of removing foreign substances and mucus from your lungs. It is also a normal response to an irritated airway. A cough is a symptom of an underlying condition, and can only be cured when the underlying problem is resolved. Generally, coughs are caused by a cold or flu. However a cough may also be caused by the following:
- Acid reflux (also know as GERD – gastroesophageal reflux disease)
- Dry air
- Medications. The class of medications called ACE inhibitors which are used to treat high blood pressure may cause chronic cough in some people. Drugs that belong to this class of medication include benazepril, captopril, dolapril, enalapril, fosinopril, dolapril, moexipril, perindopril,ramipril and trandolapril.
A cough that is not due to a cold or flu should be investigated by a doctor, as treating the cough is not going to help resolve the underlying problem.
How Do We Cough?
What Type of Cough Do I Have?
In order to effectively treat your cough, you need to know what type of cough you have. Coughs are classified as dry or chesty. A chesty cough may sometimes be called a “wet” cough.
A dry cough will be tickly, irritating and non-productive. This means that no phlegm will be produced upon coughing. A person who has a chesty cough on the other hand will be coughing up phlegm, or feel as though they need to as sometimes it can be quite difficult if the mucus on the chest is quite thick.
Sometimes people may feel as though their cough is “a bit dry and a bit chesty”. To treat a cough effectively, you will need to decide which is the dominant symptom, the dry irritation or the sensation of needing to cough up and clear phlegm. Deciding which symptom is dominant is important to ensure you select an appropriate treatment.
Please note the treatments discussed below relate to treating coughs in adults only, and the information cannot be applied to children.
How Do I Treat a Dry Cough?
If you have a dry cough associated with a cold and are well otherwise; trying a cough suppressant to treat your dry cough could be suitable. These medications can be particularly helpful at night, when the cough becomes troublesome when you are trying to sleep. Remember coughing is an important physiological mechanism, so by suppressing it this interferes with the body's normal functioning.
In many countries, cough suppressants are available over the counter from pharmacies without a prescription. They often come in liquid or medicated lozenge form, and may contain either pholcodine or dextromethorphan. These can interact with other medications (particularly dextromethorphan) so check with your pharmacist for the most suitable option. Cough suppressants are for short term use only, and if a you have a cough that won't go away, you should see your doctor for further investigation
Sometimes certain antihistamines are used to treat a dry cough (eg. diphenhydramine) as they help by drying up mucus which is causing a post nasal drip which is then irritating your airway and causing you to cough. These drugs often cause drowsiness, and if used are best taken only at night time.
There are lots of combination products on the market that state they are for "cold an flu and cough". These generally contain other ingredients such as acetaminophen and decongestants, which may or may not be appropriate for you. It's important to always read the labels to know exactly what you are taking, so that you don't accidentally overdose on medication, or take a medication that is not suitable for you.
Correct Choice of Medication Is Important
How Do You Treat a Cough?
How Do I Treat a Chesty Cough?
When treating a chesty cough, the goal is to help cough up mucus as easily as possible. A chesty cough can be treated with a medication called guaifenesin, which is an expectorant which helps you to cough up mucus. In some countries another drug called bromhexine is widely used to treat chesty coughs, which is available in liquid, tablet or lozenge form. This drug helps to thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up.
Chesty cough mixtures work by making you cough, as the sooner the mucus is out of your system, the sooner your body can begin to recover. Therefore, it is advisable not to take these cough mixtures in the hours before bed, as you will be kept awake trying to cough up mucus!
Comparison of Different Types of Cough
Chesty "Wet" Cough
Expectorant or mucolytic
Stay Hydrated - Drink Water!
What Home Remedies Can I Use to Treat My Cough?
There are many simple measures that can be taken to help relieve a cough. Try some or all of the following:
- Stay hydrated. Drinking water helps to thin out mucus, and it is the excess mucus from a post-nasal drip that often causes a dry tickly throat leading to a dry cough.
- Use a humidifier. Dry air is a common cause for coughs, so using a humidifier in the room may help relieve cough symptoms. Jumping in a steamy shower will also help loosen the mucus in dry nasal passages.
- Stay away from irritants. Avoid being around cigarette smoke and other irritants such as perfumes wherever possible.
- Unmedicated sore throat lozenges may be useful when you have a cough, by helping to relieve the irritation in your throat that causes you to cough.
Feeling Unwell? Off to the Doctor
When Will I Need to See My Doctor?
A cough may be a symptom of an underlying problem that needs further investigation. You should seek medical advice in the following situations:
- Your symptoms get worse or do not improve with treatment
- You cough up green or reddish colored phlegm
- Any signs or symptoms of whooping cough are present – most noticeably intense bouts of a hacking cough with a distinct “whoop” sound accompanied by thick phlegm
- You have a high fever (above 39C/102F)
- You have chest pain
- You are a cigarette smoker
- You are short of breath or wheezy
- You only cough at night
- Your cough is accompanied by a headache or rash
- The cough is in a child under 6 year of age
This is by no means a complete list of situations when you should consult your doctor. If your cough does not appear to be related to a cold, this should be investigated by a doctor. Ask your pharmacist for further advice on how to treat a cough next time you are faced with this problem, to ensure you are getting the most effective treatment.
This article is of a general nature and in no way should be seen as a substitute for your own doctor’s or health professional’s advice. The author accepts no responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of the published information. Before commencing any health treatment, always consult your doctor.