Ah, the joys of winter. Eggnog, ice skating ... (cough cough cough).
Constant cough can stop you in your tracks.
“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 muscles 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
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
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.)
5. Take Medications to Treat Coughs
When steamy showers, hot teas, and cough drops don’t help, you can turn to over-the-counter medicines to ease your cough.
Decongestants come in pills, liquids, and nasal sprays under many brand names. Look for phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine as the active ingredient in decongestants taken by mouth, but be careful. These medicines can raise blood pressure, so people with hypertension, heart disease or other medical problems need to be careful with their use. Also, overuse of decongestants can lead to excessive dryness, which can trigger a dry cough.
Decongestant nasal sprays, if used for more than 3 or 4 days, can lead to rebound congestion, Mosnaim says. It’s best to use them for 2 or 3 days and then stop.
Cough suppressants and expectorants: If you’re coughing so much that your chest hurts and you’re getting a bad night’s sleep, consider a cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan, Mosnaim says. Yoder recommends using cough suppressants only at night.
When a person has a cough that is thick with phlegm, Mosnaim says it helps to take a cough expectorant such as guaifenesin. Expectorants thin out the mucus so one can more easily cough it up, she says.
Note: The FDA advises against giving cold and cough medicine to children under age 4. These common over-the-counter drugs can cause serious side effects in young children.
Find Out What’s Causing Your Cough
Coughs caused by the common cold usually go away in a few weeks. Chronic, persistent coughs may be caused by underlying medical problem such as allergies, asthma, or acid reflux -- or by the medications you take. To lose those coughs, you need to treat the underlying problem.
Talk to your doctor if your cough lasts longer than a couple of weeks, if you are coughing up thick mucus or having other symptoms such as weight loss, fever, chills, or fatigue. Get emergency medical help if you are having trouble breathing or are coughing up blood.