One of the most annoyingly common symptoms is the cough. You naturally cough a couple times an hour every day, as your body clears out your lungs. When you begin to cough more often, however, it can signal an irritation or illness.
A cough is an important way the body defends itself against harm: it clears the lungs and throat of mucus and foreign particles, including bacteria. Coughing really helps the lungs to receive oxygen correctly. In a sense, it's a life-affirming response.
It's important for you to distinguish between acute and chronic cough, and know when to tell your doctor. An acute cough of about three weeks' duration often follows a viral or bacterial infection. Anything longer than three weeks signals a chronic cough.
A cough can be dry or it can contain sputum a combination of debris, mucus, and cells from the lungs. The appearance of sputum is useful, because it can help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Getting rid of an irritant is most important to reducing a cough. Upper respiratory infections are often treated with antihistamines combined with decongestants, antibiotics, or inhaled bronchodilators, which relax the lungs. Asthma can also be treated in a similar way.
- Antibiotics for bacterial infections
- Antihistamines or nasal steroids for allergic post-nasal drip
- Bronchodilators for asthma
- Treatment of gastroesophageal reflux
Self care & Prevention
Exposure to steam, as in a hot shower or humidifier, or hot liquids will help thin and release the sputum that the body is trying to cough up. Treating the primary cause of the coughing will, of course, be helpful. Seek medical help if you cough for over two to three weeks.
To calm a persistent cough, try some of the following techniques:
- Try drinking hot liquids, which loosen respiratory mucus and make it easier to cough up. (Hot liquids also soothe a sore throat and have decongestant action.) Tea sweetened with honey is effective. One study suggests that chicken soup, a traditional cold remedy, is particularly effective.
- Raise the head of your bed half a foot if a cough disrupts your sleep. This may prevent coughing due to gastroesophageal reflux.
- Pay attention to milk's effects on you. Some people swear it thickens their respiratory mucus, adding to their congestion and coughing. This effect hasn't been proven, but if milk seems to aggravate your cough, avoid dairy items for a few days.
- If you smoke, quit. Cigarette smoke is extremely irritating to the throat and lungs and provokes coughing.
- Avoid respiratory irritants, such as pollen, dust, and chemical fumes.
When to Call the Doctor
- If you have chest pains, swollen neck glands, or an earache
- If the cough lasts longer than three weeks
- If you have a fever above 102°F
- If your cough produces blood or discolored phlegm
- If you are also wheezing or breathless
Also inform your doctor:
- If you smoke.
- If you work in a job that involves contaminated air.
Last updated 26 March 2012
Possible Underlying Causes
Yellowish, green, or brown sputum suggests a bacterial infection. Clear, white, or watery sputum may show a virus, allergy, or irritant is present. Yellow sputum can also appear after a viral infection. Your doctor may send your sputum to the lab to determine its exact nature.
The most common cause of chronic, or ongoing, cough is inhaling tobacco smoke, whether primary or secondhand. The most common causes among nonsmokers are allergies, asthma, post-nasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux (caused by stomach acid backing up into your throat), or inflamed sinuses.
Some medications will provoke coughing as a side effect, such as ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers (used for high blood pressure and heart disease). Tuberculosis and lung cancer also cause coughing, and congestive heart failure has nighttime coughing as a symptom.
The following conditions or habits may have coughing as a symptom:
- Allergies or inhaling environmental irritants
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Common cold, flu, or other upper respiratory disorder
- Cystic fibrosis
- Foreign body in airways
- Lung tumors or cancer
- Pleurisy (an inflammatory lung condition) and/or pneumonia
- Whooping cough (pertussis)
In order to make a diagnosis, your doctor will question you about other symptoms you might have and take your personal history. Your occupation and whether or not you smoke will be important. He or she will also perform a physical exam and may culture a sample of your sputum. In some cases, your doctor may want you to take further tests such as chest X-rays, lung scans, CT scans, or lung function tests. In addition, he or she may use a bronchoscope to view your lungs.
Naturopaths are physicians who generally reject drugs in favor of natural treatments. This naturopathic cough remedy may be helpful: Soak onion slices in honey overnight. Strain out the onion and take a teaspoon of the mixture four times a day.
WARNING don't use coltsfoot! While it was once widely recommended in traditional herbal medicine to treat coughs, researchers have discovered that this plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that may cause liver damage. Herb expert Varro Tyler, Ph.D., warns against using it, even though it can still be found in throat lozenges available at many health food stores.