Why We Cough
Coughing is what you do when something bugs your throat, whether it’s dust or postnasal drip. Coughing also helps clear your lungs and windpipe. Many coughs, like those from cold and flu, will go away on their own. If yours comes from a more serious medical condition, you need to treat the cause. Whatever the reason, if coughing’s driving you crazy, there are ways to feel better.
Treating a Cough at Home
Drink plenty of fluids or use a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer to soothe an irritated throat and loosen mucus. Prop your head up on extra pillows at night and have a little honey before bed. Studies show honey can help ease a cough. Don’t give honey to children under 12 months.
Calming a "Wet" Cough
If you’re coughing up mucus, look for a cough medicine that says "expectorant." That loosens mucus to help you cough it up. If you’re coughing up a lot of mucus, check with your doctor to see what the best cough medicine is for you. Also, talk to your doctor before using cough medicine for serious conditions like emphysema, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, or asthma. Don’t give cough and cold medicine to children under 4.
Calming a "Dry" Cough
You may get a dry cough with a cold or the flu or if you breathe in something irritating like dust or smoke. A cough "suppressant" helps stop your urge to cough. Plus, it can help you sleep better. Cough drops -- or even hard candy -- can stop that tickle in the back of your throat. Don’t give cough drops to children younger than 5.
Cough Medicine and Children
Never give cough medicine to children younger than 4 because it can have serious side effects. For children 4 to 6 years old, ask your doctor before giving any cough and cold medicines. They're safe after age 6. For children 1 and up, try 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey to help them cough up mucus.
Will Antibiotics Stop a Cough?
Usually, no. That’s because most coughs are caused by viral infections like cold or flu and will get better in a week. Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria. If your cough isn’t better after a week, see your doctor to make sure it’s not caused by a bacterial illness like a sinus infection or pneumonia. If it is, you may need an antibiotic.
Coughs From Allergies and Asthma
Allergies can make you sneeze, cough, or both. An antihistamine may help. Some newer ones at the drugstore won’t make you sleepy. If you’re also wheezing -- where your breath sounds like whistling -- you may have asthma and need to see your doctor.
If you smoke, chances are you cough, especially in the morning. But that cough may be a sign of something more serious. Sometimes smoke irritates the airways and causes inflammation that turns into chronic bronchitis. It can also be a warning sign of cancer. If your cough seems different than usual, or if it lasts after you quit smoking for a month, see your doctor.
What Else Causes Coughs?
If your cough lasts longer than eight weeks, a number of things could be to blame. Chronic coughs can be caused by acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. They can be a side effect of ACE inhibitors, a kind of blood pressure medicine. They can be a sign of whooping cough and even heart failure. All of these conditions need medical attention.
When to Call the Doctor for a Cough
For a long-lasting cough, call your doctor if:
- You have a deep cough with lots of mucus or the mucus is bloody
- You’re wheezing, short of breath, or have a tight chest
- You have a fever that doesn’t go away after 3 days
- Your child has the chills or nighttime coughing fits
- You’re still coughing after 7 days without getting better