Relieving A Cough

Topic Overview

Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and mucus out of your lungs and upper airway passages. Coughs are often useful, and you should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to make breathing difficult, cause vomiting, or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more comfortable when you have a cough.

  • Drink more fluids. Water helps loosen mucus and soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs respond to honey in hot water, tea, or lemon juice. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.
  • Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.
  • Try a cough drop to soothe an irritated throat. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are not any better than inexpensive candy-flavored ones or hard candy. Most cough drops have no effect on the cough-producing mechanism.
  • Quit smoking. For more information, see the topic Quitting Tobacco Use.
  • Avoid exposure to inhaled irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants, or wear a face mask that is appropriate for the exposure. There are many kinds of face masks. Check with your health professional or pharmacist to determine which types will give you the most benefit.

Although there is no evidence to show that cough preparations help a cough, some people may find them useful. Avoid cold remedies that combine medications to treat many symptoms. It is generally better to treat each symptom separately. There are two kinds of cough medicines: expectorants and suppressants.

  • Expectorants may make it easier to cough up mucus when you have a productive cough.
    • Use an expectorant if you have a cough that produces thick mucus and you are having difficulty coughing up the mucus.
    • Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin.
  • Suppressants may control or suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you awake.
    • Use cough suppressants wisely. Don't suppress a productive cough too much, unless it is keeping you from getting enough rest. Coughing is useful because it brings up mucus from the lungs and helps to prevent bacterial infections.
    • If you have a dry, hacking cough that does not bring anything up, ask your health professional about an effective cough suppressant medication.
    • Look for suppressant medications containing dextromethorphan.

Research on cough suppressants and expectorants reports that nonprescription cough suppressants were no more effective than a placebo in relieving cough, and that there is not enough evidence to determine the effectiveness of nonprescription expectorants.1

If you have sore muscles from coughing a lot, have someone massage your chest and back muscles a few times each day. Massage can reduce soreness and help you rest and relax better.

Cough preparation precautions

  • Cough medications may cause drowsiness.
  • Cough preparations can cause problems for people with other health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate. Cough preparations may also interact with other medications, such as sedatives and certain antidepressants. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose one.
  • Use them with caution if you give them to an older adult or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
  • Read the label so you know what the ingredients are. Some cough preparations contain a large percentage of alcohol; others contain codeine. There are many choices. Ask your pharmacist to advise you.
  • Do not take someone else's prescription cough medication.
  • Do not give cough and cold medicines to a child younger than 2 unless your child’s doctor has told you to. If your child’s doctor tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do.

References

Citations

  1. Wark P (2008). Bronchitis (acute), search date July 2006. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Also available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.

Credits

Author Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Robert L. Cowie, MB, FCP(SA) - Pulmonology
Last Updated July 23, 2008

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