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Cough Relief: How to Lose a Bad Cough

Try these 5 tips to manage your cough at home.
By Joanna Broder
WebMD Feature

Ah, the joys of winter. Eggnog, ice skating ... (cough cough cough).  

Constant cough can stop you in your tracks. 

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“Even a little cough can be debilitating,” says Mark Yoder, MD, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Cold and flu season brings on hacking coughs that can leave your chest aching. But colds and flu aren’t the only problems that cause coughing. Allergies, asthma, acid reflux, dry air, and smoking are common causes of coughs. Even medications such as certain drugs for high blood pressure and allergies can cause chronic cough.

Most of the time, people can manage their coughs at home by taking over-the-counter medicine and cough lozenges, removing potential allergens, or even just standing in a steamy shower, says Giselle Mosnaim, an allergist and immunologist also at Rush.

Try these five tips to manage your cough at home:

1. Stay Hydrated

An upper respiratory tract infection like a cold or flu causes postnasal drip. Extra secretions trickle down the back of your throat, irritating it and sometimes causing a cough, Mosnaim says. 

Drinking fluids helps to thin out the mucus in postnasal drip, says Kenneth DeVault, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. 

Drinking liquids also helps to keep mucous membranes moist. This is particularly helpful in winter, when houses tend to be dry, another cause of cough, he says.

2. Try Lozenges and Hot Drinks

Try a menthol cough drop, Yoder suggests. “It numbs the back of the throat, and that will tend to decrease the cough reflex.”

Drinking warm tea with honey also can soothe the throat. There is some clinical evidence to support this strategy, Yoder says. 

3. Take Steamy Showers, and Use a Humidifier

A hot shower can help a cough by loosening secretions in the nose. Mosnaim says this steamy strategy can help ease coughs not only from colds, but also from allergies and asthma.  

Humidifiers may also help. In a dry home, nasal secretions (snot) can become dried out and uncomfortable, Mosnaim explains. Putting moisture back in the air can help your cough. But be careful not to overdo it.

“The downside is, if you don’t clean it, (humidifiers) become reservoirs for pumping out fungus and mold into the air, and bacteria,” says Robert Naclerio, MD, chief of otolaryngology at the University of Chicago.

4. Remove Irritants From the Air

Perfumes and scented bathroom sprays may seem benign. But for some people they can cause chronic sinus irritation, producing extra mucus that leads to chronic cough, says Alan Weiss, MD, a general internist at the Cleveland Clinic. Take control by avoiding such scented products. 

The worst irritant in the air is, of course, smoke. Almost all smokers eventually develop “smoker’s cough." Everyone around the smoker may suffer from some airway irritation. The best solution? Smokers need to stop smoking. (Yoder warns that severe chronic cough can be a sign of emphysema or lung cancer in smokers, so see a doctor if you’re a smoker with chronic cough.)  

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