Most coughs are a response to a cold, flu or allergies. This is normal; everyone will cough occasionally. If your cough is bringing up blood and/or mucus, this is abnormal and you should consult your doctor. Likewise, you should talk to your GP if your cough is causing you severe pain or making you feel fatigued or light-headed.
Coughing itself is not a disease – it is an indication that something else is wrong with your body. For this reason, cough medicine will not address the cause of the cough.
There are two different categories of cough medication: expectorants and suppressants.
Expectorants are used to treat a wet cough, which may be due to a condition like bronchitis or pneumonia. The medication helps the cough to remove the excess mucus from the bronchial tree and lungs.
Suppressants are used to ease a dry non-infectious cough. If there is a chance that your cough is due to another serious condition, you should be wary of using suppressants. This is because coughing is the body’s way of removing substances from the respiratory pathway.
Some medications for high blood pressure (ACE inhibitors such as enalapril, lisinopril and perindopril) may cause a chronic cough.
You should talk to your GP if you notice that your cough is causing you to expel blood or mucus, to have a fever, or to have difficulty breathing. These symptoms might indicate that you have a more serious problem than a cold or flu. One such condition is a chest infection, which may also cause a rapid heartbeat, wheezing, or disorientation.
You should also see your GP if your cough lasts for more than three weeks, or does not improve after seven days of medication.
When the respiratory system is working normally, the tissue of the lungs is lined with a layer of mucus (or phlegm), which prevents irritants from entering the lungs. These irritants include bacteria, viruses and dust. Coughing is the body’s mechanism of removing the mucus which has trapped irritants. This is why you have an excess of mucus and a chesty cough when you are fighting a cold.
It is important to look after yourself. Staying rested will help your immune system to recover, and frequently washing your hands will stop the spread of germs. Another way to help your immune system is to ensure that you are fully hydrated. Water can also help to loosen mucus, and replenish fluids you have lost through your nose and mouth.
If you are struggling to sleep, try sleeping on a slight incline. This will prevent mucus from reaching your throat, and help with congestion.
Consider avoiding cigarettes and other forms of smoke. Smoke commonly causes irritation of the lungs.
Tickly dry coughs occur due to an irritation of the throat rather than the lungs, which is why no mucus is involved. The irritation may be due to cold or flu infections, or common irritants including dust and smoke. Several allergens can cause a dry cough; if you think you are coughing due to an allergy, try taking antihistamines.
Other conditions can cause a dry cough as well. One is asthma, which will also cause wheezing. Another is gastric reflux, in which case you will likely also be suffering from heartburn. In either case, you may want to talk to your GP.
The mechanism of a dry cough can further irritate the airways, and cause a sore throat. So, you should try to soothe your throat as quickly as possible.
Along with suppressant cough medicines, consider using lozenges, hard sweets or even ice cubes to ease the irritation in the throat.
Steam from a hot shower can moisturise the nose and throat. If, however, you suffer from asthma, steam may worsen your cough.
If the air in your bedroom is dry, use a humidifier.
Remove dust from your house and bedding. Dust is a common irritant, and dust mites can trigger allergies.
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