What’s in a cough?
Generally speaking, coughing is perfectly normal. A cough can help to keep your throat clear from phlegm and other irritants. However, sustained coughing can also be symptomatic of a number of conditions.
Irritants are substances in the air that irritate your throat or nasal passages and can cause coughing. A cough is your body’s way of rejecting that irritant. Sometimes the irritant comes in the form of an allergen, such as pollen or pet dander. This causes your body’s immune system to create chemicals called histamines that react to the allergen. If you have a cough that arises immediately in a certain environment or season, you may have an allergy.
Another cause for a cough is a viral or bacterial infection. These symptoms may be accompanied by:
- nasal congestion
- stomach upset
- runny nose
These symptoms tend to be shorter in duration, lasting only one or two weeks. When you have allergies, they’ll typically persist throughout an allergy season or occur whenever you’re around the substance you’re allergic to.
Sometimes a cough isn’t due to anything related to your lungs. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also cause a cough.
When to call your doctor
Respiratory tract infections involve body aches and fever, whereas allergies do not. Seek emergency medical treatment if your cough is affecting your ability to breathe or if you’re coughing up blood.
See your primary care physician if you experience the following symptoms in addition to your cough:
- fever higher than 101˚F (38˚C)
- malaise, or a general feeling of being unwell
- productive cough that has foul-smelling, thick, green- or yellow-tinted phlegm
You can treat coughs due to colds, allergies, and sinus infections with a number of over-the-counter medicines. Bacterial infections will require antibiotics. However, for those who prefer to avoid chemicals, we’ve listed a few home remedies that can help.
Honey is a time-honored remedy for a sore throat. According to one study, it can also relieve coughs more effectively than over-the-counter medicines that contain dextromethorphan (DM), a cough suppressant.
You can create your own remedy at home by mixing up to two teaspoons of honey with herbal tea or warm water and lemon. The honey does the soothing, while the lemon juice can help with congestion. You can also simply eat the honey by the spoonful or spread it on bread for a snack.
Probiotics are microorganisms that can provide a host of health benefits. While they don’t relieve a cough directly, they do help to balance your gastrointestinal flora (the bacteria that live in your intestines). This can support immune system function throughout the body. Evidence also suggests that Lactobacillus, a bacterium in dairy, can reduce the likelihood of a cold or flu and sensitivity to certain allergens like pollen.
Fortified milk is a great source of Lactobacillus. You should be cautious, however, as dairy may make phlegm thicker. You can also purchase probiotic supplements at most health food stores and drug stores. Each supplement manufacturer may have different daily recommended intakes. Probiotics are also added to some yogurt types and are present in miso soup and sourdough breads.
You don’t usually think of pineapple as a cough remedy, but that’s probably because you’ve never heard of bromelain. There is evidence to suggest that bromelain — an enzyme found only in the stem and fruit of pineapples — can help suppress coughs as well as loosen the mucus in your throat. To enjoy the most benefits of pineapple and bromelain, eat a slice of pineapple or drink 3.5 ounces of fresh pineapple juice three times a day.
There are also claims that it can help relieve sinusitis and allergy-based sinus issues, which can contribute to coughs and mucus. However, there is insufficient evidence to support this. It’s also sometimes used to treat inflammation and swelling.
Bromelain supplements should not be taken by children or adults who take blood thinners. Also, be careful using bromelain if you are also on antibiotics such as amoxicillin, as it can increase the absorption of the antibiotic. Always speak to your doctor before taking new or unfamiliar supplements.
Peppermint leaves are well known for their healing properties. Menthol in peppermint soothes the throat and acts as a decongestant, helping to break down mucus. You can benefit by drinking peppermint tea or by inhaling peppermint vapors from a steam bath. To make a steam bath, add three to four drops of peppermint oil for every 150 milliliters of hot water. Drape a towel over your head, and take deep breaths directly above the water.
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Marshmallow is made from Althaea officinalis, a perennial that flowers in summer. The leaves and roots of the herb have been used since ancient times to treat sore throats and suppress coughs. There are no well-controlled studies to support these claims, but the herb is generally considered safe.
The marshmallow herb contains mucilage, which coats the throat and soothes irritation.
Today, you can get marshmallow root as tea or in capsule form. The warm tea can be soothing to a cough that’s accompanied by a sore throat. Marshmallow root is not recommended for children.
Thyme is used by some for respiratory illnesses. One study suggests that the essence extracted from thyme leaves mixed with ivy can help relieve coughing as well as short-term bronchitis. The leaves contain compounds called flavonoids that relax the throat muscles involved in coughing and lessen inflammation.
You can make thyme tea at home using 2 teaspoons of crushed thyme leaves and 1 cup of boiling water. Cover the cup, steep for 10 minutes, and strain.
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7. Salt and water gargle
While the remedy may seem relatively simple, a salt and water gargle can help soothe a scratchy throat that causes you to cough. Mixing 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water can help to relieve irritation.
Note that children under age 6 aren’t especially good at gargling. It’s best to try other remedies for this age group.
How to prevent coughing
In addition to learning how to treat a cough, you might want to learn how to prevent them in the first place. To prevent against flu, make sure you get your annual flu shot, usually starting in October. Other steps you can take include:
- Avoid coming in contact with others who are sick. If you know you are sick, avoid going to work or school so you will not infect others.
- Cover your nose and mouth whenever your cough or sneeze.
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Frequently clean common areas of your home, work, or school. This is especially true for countertops, toys, or mobile phones.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing, eating, going to the bathroom, or caring for someone who is sick.
With allergies, you can reduce flare-ups by identifying the allergens that affect you and avoiding exposure to them. Common allergens include trees, pollen, dust mites, animal fur, mold, and insects. Allergy shots are helpful as well and can reduce your sensitivity to allergens. Talk to your doctor about what plan is right for you.