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Chest and Respiratory Problems

Coughs

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

Coughing is the body's way of removing foreign material or mucus from the lungs. Coughs have distinctive traits that you can learn to recognize.

Productive coughs produce phlegm or mucus (sputum) that comes up from the lungs. This kind of cough generally should not be suppressed. It is needed to clear mucus from the lungs.

Nonproductive coughs are dry coughs that do not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. Dry coughs that follow viral illnesses may last up to several weeks and often get worse at night.

A chronic, dry cough, especially at night or early in the morning, may be the only sign of mild asthma. See Asthma.

Long-term (chronic) coughs are often caused by the backflow (reflux) of stomach acid into the lungs and throat. If you suspect that problems with stomach acid reflux may be causing your cough, see Heartburn on See Heartburn.

Prevention

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  • Don't smoke. See Be Tobacco-Free for tips on quitting. Avoid other people's smoke. A dry, hacking "smoker's cough" means your lungs are constantly irritated.

  • Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water every day. You are drinking enough if you are urinating more often than usual.

Home Treatment

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  • Drink lots of water. Water helps loosen phlegm and soothe an irritated throat. Also try drinking hot tea or hot water with honey and/or lemon juice in it. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.

  • Cough drops can soothe an irritated throat. Expensive, medicine-flavoured cough drops are not any better than inexpensive, candy-flavoured ones or hard candy.

  • Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.

  • Use cough suppressants wisely. Avoid cold remedies that combine drugs to treat many symptoms. It is generally better to treat each symptom separately. See Cough Preparations on See Cough Preparations.

  • Coughing is useful because it brings up mucus from the lungs and helps prevent bacterial infections. People with asthma and other lung diseases need to cough. If you have a dry, hacking cough that does not bring anything up, ask your health professional about an effective cough suppressant medication.

  • Do not take anyone else's prescription cough medication.

  • Avoid exposure to dust, smoke, and other irritants, or wear an appropriate mask to protect yourself from the irritant.

  • If you have classic flu symptoms, try Home Treatment and reassess your symptoms in 48 hours. See Influenza (Flu) on See Influenza (Flu).

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If you develop signs of a bacterial infection (see "Viral or Bacterial?" on See Viral or Bacterial?).

    Description and Treatment of Coughs

    Type of Cough

    Possible Causes

    Loud cough like a seal's bark

    Croup, See Croup.

    Dry cough in the morning that gets better as the day goes on

    Dry air; cigarette smoking. Increase fluids. Humidify the bedroom. Stop smoking. Also See Coughs.

    Hacking, dry, nonproductive cough; may be worse at night

    Common for several weeks following a viral illness. May be due to postnasal drip, smoking, or mild asthma. Increase fluids. Try a decongestant. Stop smoking. Also , See Coughs; , See Asthma.

    Productive cough following a cold or flu

    Bronchitis, See Bronchitis; Pneumonia, See Pneumonia; Sinusitis, See Sinusitis.

    Dry, sudden-onset cough after a choking episode, most often in an infant or toddler

    Foreign object in the throat. See Choking.

  • If a cough lingers more than 7 to 10 days after other symptoms have cleared, especially if the cough is productive (brings up sputum). A dry, hacking cough may last several weeks after a viral illness such as a cold.

  • If any cough lasts longer than 4 weeks.

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