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What is it

A cough is one of the most common reasons that people see a doctor. It is an important reflex that keeps lungs and airways free of secretions or foreign objects that might interfere with breathing. Coughing can be a response to an irritation or obstruction in the throat, larynx, bronchial tubes, or lungs, but in most cases you can manage a cough yourself.

Your lungs, sinuses, and throat contain a net- work of cough receptors nerve endings that transmit cough messages to the brain. Basically, a cough begins with a deep inhalation of air and closing of the epiglottis and vocal cords, which keeps the air in the lungs. Your diaphragm and chest muscles contract, creating pressure. The epiglottis and vocal cords open abruptly, so that the trapped air bursts out of the lungs, loosening and expelling foreign objects and mucus.

You may not notice it, but people normally cough once or twice an hour an action that clears the throat. That’s all well and good, until you get the dry hacking type of cough that keeps you awake at night and turns into a social liability by day.

There are two different kinds of coughs, non-productive and productive. Productive cough brings up mucus through the respiratory tract; this process helps speed recovery from inflammation of the airways and lungs while non-productive cough is dry and scratchy, raises no sputum, and is typically a response to allergies or medication.

When you have a cold, a cough is usually dry during the first stages; later you may have a productive cough, which usually means that your cold is on the way out.


  • A cough is a symptom itself rather than an ailment, and coughs can have a number of different patterns and causes, as described below. The production of mucus, phlegm, or blood can indicate an infection. The mucus may be thin or thick in consistency clear, green, yellow, white, or blood-stained.

What causes it

Along with colds, flu is a common cause of coughing that can last for several days. Other respiratory tract conditions associated with coughing include asthma, which produces mucus and triggers a productive cough, and bronchitis. One of the leading causes of chronic coughing is cigarette smoking because it increases the production of mucus in the bronchial tubes, which then has to be moved out by coughing.

Coughing can also be triggered by dust, an object or piece of food trapped in the airways, and pollution or other environmental irritants.

Gastroesophageal reflux (heartburn) can also cause paroxysms of coughing. And certain medications can produce coughing bouts. For example, many people who take ACE inhibitors type of drug for treating high blood pressure develop a dry cough.

In children, croup typically causes a loud harsh cough that sounds like a seal’s bark. A loud gasping cough can be triggered by pertussis, or whooping cough.

Coughing, especially when accompanied by chest pain or breathing difficulty, can indicate a more serious medical condition, such as, pneumonia, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, congestive heart failure, or some other severe problem.

What if you do nothing

A cough will generally subside on its own. However, a persistent cough is a telling symptom for a number of serious diseases. If a cough continues for more than three days without any obvious reason or if it interferes with your everyday activities, contact your physician.

Home remedies

The following remedies should help make a common cough more bearable and shorten its duration.

Drink plenty of water

Water is the best expectorant because it helps thin secretions and makes them easier to bring up. For most coughs, water is often more effective than medications.

Loosen up with an expectorant

If you’re congested but your cough is not productive, you may wish you had something to loosen up the mucus. Plenty of products, known as expectorants, claim to do just that. All consists of guaifenesin, the only medicine accepted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has categorized it as “secure and effective.” However, guaifenesin has never been proved effective in clinical trials.

Suppress a dry, hacking cough

The most common kind of single-ingredient cough medicine is a suppressant, which acts on the cough center in the brain. Some suppressants consist of the tranquilizer codeine or a codeine derivative that are accepted for over-the-counter sales in numerous countries. Codeine works, but can cause stomach upset and promote constipation.

A better choice is a suppressant with dextromethorphan, a synthetic relative of codeine that works on the same nerve center to suppress coughing but with much milder side effects. Third type consist of diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl), the only antihistamine suggested for dealing with coughs. Like codeine, it may make you drowsy.

If you decide to use a cough medicine, remember that generics are as effective as the comparable brand-name product and usually a lot less expensive.

Steer clear of combinations

Be cautious about combinations of ingredients. If your cough is allergic in origin, an antihistamine can help, but you probably won’t also need an expectorant. Antihistamines dry up secretions, and expectorants are supposed to loosen them, so if you combine these two ingredients, you are working against yourself. And combinations of ingredients may not have sufficient doses of any one of them.

Read and follow warning labels on all cough medicines

Some cause drowsiness and should not be taken if you’re driving; some can interact with other medications. If case you are pregnant or giving cough medicines to kids, it’s a best to get expert guidance.

Try cough drops or hard candy

Despite the medicinal taste and smell of some of the more serious-looking cough drops and throat lozenges, there’s no clinical evidence that they’re better than hard candy. Eucalyptus and menthol oils, topical anesthetics, and other ingredients may not help you any more than a plain old lemon drop. Sucking on a hard candy (or cough drop) probably works by promoting saliva flow, which is soothing; the sugar can also soothe the throat.

Cough drops are generally harmless, but aromatic oils can irritate mucous membranes or upset your stomach. Like hard candies, cough drops that contain sugar can contribute to tooth decay.

Try a vaporizer

If your home is dry and over- heated, use a vaporizer in your room to add moisture to the dry air. This is especially important at night when you sleep. The humidified air helps liquefy the mucus and make your cough more productive. Since vaporizers can harbor bacteria and fungi that can aggravate and even cause a cough, be sure to clean your machine regularly.

Don’t forget ointments and salves

Camphor ointments like Vapo Rub help to cure coughing and are the only topical cure accepted by the FDA.

In addition, rubbing your chest with menthol salves or pure peppermint oil and breathing the vapors may also help quell coughing.

If you smoke, try to quit

Smoking poisons the breathing tubes, and the chronic cough that results from smoking the so-called smoker’s cough is often a precursor of fatal diseases, such as lung cancer.


Avoid tobacco smoke

Coughing may result from exposure to cigarette smoke. Encourage your spouse, family members, or co-workers to quit smoking.

Reduce exposure to irritants

If you are regularly exposed to dust, chemicals, or smoke at work, be sure that you wear a mask and that your work area is properly ventilated.

Avoid air pollution

If you exercise outdoors, be sure to exercise early in the day. In most major cities, air pollution levels are lowest during the early morning hours, until about 10 AM.

Consider air filters

An air conditioner or special air filter can be useful, especially if you have seasonal allergies or asthma.

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