Coughing is an action that expels air from your lungs forcefully. There are two main types of cough – productive and nonproductive cough. Productive coughs (or wet coughs) produce phlegm, and coughing helps to get rid of this phlegm from your lungs. Nonproductive coughs, called dry coughs, are tickly coughs that do not bring up mucous. They are usually caused by swelling or irritation of the throat.
Signs & Symptoms
Cough in itself is usually the symptom of another underlying condition (look under section “Causes”).
When to Seek Medical Attention
Even though cough is a very common during a bout of cold and flu, please see your doctor if you experience:
- Chest pains
- Breathing distress
- Blood in sputum
- Unexplained weight loss
- Severe fatigue
- Fever and night sweats
- Persistent cough – It might be caused by an underlying condition such as gastric reflux or asthma.
- Infections such as a cold or flu, pneumonia or tuberculosis
- Lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Gastric reflux which causes acid from the stomach to rise up to the throat
- Side effects of certain medications
- E.g. ACE inhibitors can cause a dry cough
- Irritation of your throat and lungs e.g. Smoking, pollutants
- Foreign bodies lodged in the throat e.g. bones
Drink more water to soothe your throat and thin out your phlegm. Staying hydrated is especially important when you have a fever.
Honey can help to soothe the throat and might help with your cough. Even though honey is natural and perceived by most parents to be safe, do not give this to infants under the age of 1.
If your persistent cough is caused by smoking, stop smoking immediately. Smoking can cause serious lung problems.
Camphor ointments can be useful for coughs. Apply a layer of ointment to the chest or throat area and inhale the vapours. If you are using it on children, please ensure that they do not swallow the ointment or put it into their nostrils.
If your cough is due to a viral illness, it will go off by itself. However, if the cough is distressing for you, you might try one of the following. It is important not to self medicate young children, especially children under 2. Always check with your doctor or pediatrician if in doubt.
Dried ivy leaf extract is a traditional herbal formulation commonly used for productive coughs, even in young children.
Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant. It works by suppressing the cough centre in your brain. This is not suitable if you with a productive cough, as it would be better for you to bring up your phlegm. If you are on other medications, always mention this to your doctor or pharmacist as dextromethorphan can cause drug interactions with some medicines.
Mucolytics such as Acetylcysteine, Ambroxol and Bromhexine can help to thin out mucous, while Guaifenesin, ammonium chloride and sodium citrate are expectorants that help you to bring the phlegm up. Both mucolytics and expectorants are indicated for productive coughs.
Antihistamine cough syrups are available, but some people cannot tolerate them due to their drowsy side effects. Do not take them if you need to drive or operate heavy machinery. Some syrups come in a combination formula with an antihistamine and mucolytic or expectorant.