woman coughing in snowstorm
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Why We Cough

It’s what you do when something bugs your throat, whether that's dust or postnasal drip. It 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, there are ways to feel better.

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honey on a stick
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Home Treatments

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 the sweet stuff can help ease a cough. Don’t give honey to children under 12 months, though.

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cough syrup in medicine cabinet
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Calm a 'Wet' Cough

If you’re coughing up mucus, look for medicine that says "expectorant." That loosens the gunk to help you get rid of it. If you’re coughing up a lot of stuff, ask your doctor what the best medicine is for you. Also check with him before you use cough medicine for serious conditions like emphysema, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, or asthma. Don’t give cough and cold medicine to children under 4.

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close up of cough drop
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Calm a 'Dry' Cough

You may get one with a cold or the flu, or if you breathe in something irritating like dust or smoke. Medicine that says "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 the drops to children younger than 4.

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dad taking daughters temperature
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Cough Medicine and Children

Never give this type of medicine to children under 4 years old, because it can have serious side effects. Ask your doctor before you give any of these products to children ages 4 to 6. 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.

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doctor checking for pneumonia
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Will Antibiotics Stop a Cough?

Usually, no. That’s because most coughs are caused by viral infections like colds or the 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 the cause isn’t a bacterial illness, like a sinus infection or pneumonia. If it is, you may need an antibiotic.

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woman with hay fever
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Coughs From Allergies and Asthma

Allergies can make you sneeze, cough, or both. An antihistamine medicine 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. Go see your doctor.

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cigarettes in ashtray
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Smoker's Hack

If you light up, chances are you cough, especially in the morning. But it may be a sign of something more serious. Sometimes smoke irritates your airways and causes inflammation that turns into bronchitis. It can also be a warning sign of cancer. See your doctor if your cough seems different than usual, or if it lasts after you quit smoking for a month.

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man suffering from heartburn
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What Else Causes Coughs?

If yours lasts longer than 8 weeks, a number of things could be to blame. Ongoing coughs can be caused by acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease -- you may hear your doctor call it GERD. Coughs can be a side effect of ACE inhibitors, a kind of blood pressure medicine. They can be a symptom of whooping cough and even heart failure, too. You need medical care for all of these conditions.

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worried mom calling doctor
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When to Call the Doctor

For a long-lasting cough, call your doctor if:

  • You have a deep cough with lots of mucus.
  • 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.

 

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/09/2016 Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on May 09, 2016

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Sources:

American Academy of Pediatricians: "Withdrawal of Cold Medicines: Addressing Parent Concerns."
American College of Chest Physicians: "Information for Patients Complaining of Cough."
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Asthma Overview," "Flu/Cold or Allergies?"
Aurora Health Care: "Cough."
FamilyDoctor.org: "Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options."
Healthychildren.org: "Caring for a Child with a Viral Infection," "Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?"
Kaiser Permanente: "Coughs in Adults and Children."
KidsHealth: "Infant Botulism," "Fever and Taking Your Child's Temperature."
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "How Is Cough Treated?"
NHS: "Cough."
Paul, I. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, December 2007.
Shadkam, M. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July 2010.
University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: "Expectorants vs. cough suppressants."
 

Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on May 09, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.