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Cough: causes and treatment options

A cough is a reflex action by which air is forcibly expelled from the lungs, typically to clear the airways of irritants, mucus, or foreign particles. A person could be experiencing a cough due to various factors and underlying conditions. Some common reasons for coughing include:

  • Viral infections: Respiratory viruses, such as the common cold or flu, often lead to coughing as the body's natural response to clear the airways of irritants and mucus.

  • Bacterial infections: Bacterial infections like bronchitis or pneumonia can cause inflammation in the airways, triggering coughing to expel mucus and pathogens.

  • Allergies: Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, pet dander, or certain foods can lead to coughing as the body tries to remove the allergens from the respiratory tract.

  • Environmental irritants: Inhaling smoke, pollutants, strong odors, or chemicals can irritate the airways, causing coughing.

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus can trigger coughing, especially when lying down or after eating.

  • Asthma: Asthma is characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, leading to coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

  • Postnasal drip: Excess mucus from the nose or sinuses can drip down the back of the throat, causing coughing.

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema can result in persistent coughing due to compromised lung function.

  • Medications: Some medications, such as ACE inhibitors used for hypertension, can cause a persistent cough as a side effect.

  • Underlying health conditions: Cough can be a symptom of more serious conditions like lung cancer, heart failure, or pulmonary embolism.

  • Excessive talking or laughing: Overuse of the vocal cords through talking, shouting, or laughing can lead to temporary coughing.

  • Cold air or changes in temperature: Breathing in cold air or sudden temperature changes can trigger coughing, especially in individuals with sensitive airways.

  • Whooping cough: This highly contagious bacterial infection causes severe coughing fits and a distinctive "whooping" sound during inhalation.


Remedies for a cough

Treatment for a cough depends on the underlying cause and whether it is a dry or wet cough. Here are some general approaches and remedies that can help alleviate and manage a cough:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, herbal teas, and clear broths, to keep your throat moist and help thin mucus.

  • Humidify the air: Use a humidifier in your room to add moisture to the air, which can soothe the throat and reduce irritation.

  • Honey: Honey has natural soothing properties. Mix it with warm water or herbal tea and consume to ease coughing.

  • Warm salt water gargle: Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe a sore throat and reduce coughing.

  • Cough drops or lozenges: Sucking on cough drops or lozenges can temporarily relieve throat irritation and suppress the urge to cough.

  • Steam inhalation: Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water or a steamy shower can help loosen mucus and ease breathing.

  • Over-the-counter medications:

    • Cough suppressants: These can help reduce the urge to cough, particularly for dry coughs.

    • Expectorants: For wet coughs, these medications help thin and loosen mucus, making it easier to clear.

  • Avoid irritants: Stay away from smoke, strong odors, and other environmental irritants that can worsen coughing.

  • Elevate your head: When sleeping, use an extra pillow to elevate your head, which can reduce postnasal drip and ease nighttime coughing.

  • Stay rested: Get plenty of rest to support your body's healing process.

  • Avoid cough-inducing foods: Certain foods, like spicy or acidic ones, can exacerbate coughing.

  • Prescription medications: If your cough is due to an underlying medical condition, a doctor may prescribe specific medications or treatments.


It's important to remember that the best treatment for your cough will depend on its cause. Speak with a St. Joseph Health primary care provider for proper diagnosis and guidance on managing your specific situation.

When to seek medical treatment for a cough

You should consider seeing a St. Joseph Health primary care provider for a cough if it:

  • Lasts more than 3 weeks

  • Is accompanied by high fever, chills, or sweating

  • Produces blood or discolored mucus

  • Causes chest pain or breathing difficulties

  • Is severe, persistent, or worsening

  • Interferes with sleep, work, or daily activities

  • Affects a child or elderly person

  • Is linked to underlying health issues like asthma or heart disease

  • Occurs after recent travel or exposure to contagious individuals


Cough prevention tips

  • Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands regularly with soap and water to reduce the risk of infections that can lead to coughing.

  • Stay hydrated: Drink an adequate amount of water throughout the day to keep your throat moist and prevent irritation.

  • Cover your mouth and nose: When coughing or sneezing, use a tissue or your elbow to cover your mouth and nose to prevent the spread of germs.

  • Avoid close contact: Minimize contact with individuals who have a cough or cold to reduce your risk of exposure to viruses.

  • Vaccinations: Stay up-to-date with vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine, to protect yourself from respiratory illnesses.

  • Maintain clean air: Use an air purifier to remove allergens and irritants from the air in your home.

  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke: Smoking and exposure to smoke can irritate the airways and lead to coughing. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can improve respiratory health.

  • Stay active: Regular exercise can help strengthen your immune system and improve lung health.

  • Stay warm: Protect yourself from cold temperatures and cover your mouth and nose when outside in cold weather to reduce the risk of coughing triggered by cold air.

  • Manage allergies: If you have allergies, take steps to manage them, such as using allergy-proof bedding and keeping windows closed during high pollen seasons.

  • Stay away from irritants: Avoid exposure to chemicals, strong odors, and other irritants that can trigger coughing.

  • Stay well-rested: Get sufficient sleep to support your immune system and overall health.

  • Stay stress-free: Chronic stress can weaken your immune system, so practice stress-reduction techniques like meditation or yoga.

  • Stay well-nourished: Eat a balanced diet rich in vitamins and nutrients to support your immune system.

  • Stay informed: Stay updated on health advisories and recommendations to prevent respiratory illnesses, especially during outbreaks.


Proper coughing etiquette 

  • Use a tissue or elbow: When you feel a cough coming on, use a tissue or the inside of your elbow to cover your mouth and nose. This helps contain respiratory droplets that may carry germs.

  • Dispose of tissues properly: If you use a tissue, dispose of it immediately in a lined trash bin. Avoid leaving used tissues lying around.

  • Wash your hands: After coughing or sneezing, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap is unavailable, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

  • Avoid touching your face: Refrain from touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth, as germs on your hands can enter your body through these openings.

  • Maintain distance: If you're around others, try to maintain a safe distance of at least 6 feet to minimize the risk of spreading germs.

  • Wear a mask: If you're in a public place or around people, wearing a mask can help prevent the release of respiratory droplets and reduce the spread of germs.

  • Stay home when sick: If you're feeling unwell, it's best to stay home to avoid spreading germs to others.

  • Practice respiratory hygiene: Teach children and others around you to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.

  • Disinfect surfaces: If you cough into your hands, wash them immediately. Additionally, regularly disinfect surfaces that may come into contact with germs.

  • Cough etiquette: Be mindful of your surroundings and try to step away from others when coughing. Use proper cough etiquette even if you're wearing a mask.

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