Coughs are annoying and irritating if you have one (and pretty annoying if you're near someone who has one too). Thankfully there are a number of things you can do to ease your symptoms and stop coughing.
Dr Juliet McGrattan shares her expert tips on how to treat dry and chesty coughs, plus the warning signs that indicate your cough may have a more serious underlying cause:
Why do we cough?
Despite being annoying, coughs actually help us. They are a protective mechanism designed to keep particles and germs out of our windpipe and lungs. Our airways are lined with cells which produce mucous to keep them moist and to trap dirt and germs. They also contain cells with little legs (cilia) which waft around and move the trapped dirt and germs back up the airways.
There are cough receptors in our airways and when irritated they trigger a cough. The high pressure, forceful expulsion of air during a cough takes mucous, dirt and any other foreign particles with it.
Coughs clear our airways enabling us to breathe more easily. People who can’t cough effectively such as newborn babies, the elderly and those with muscular disorders are more at risk of developing lung infections including pneumonia.
What causes a cough?
There are many different factors that can cause coughs and they include:
Respiratory infections – viral and bacterial
Allergies, such as pollen or animal fur
Chemical irritation, such as inhaling strong cleaning fluid
Particle inhalation, such as dust or smoke
Post-nasal drip – phlegm dripping from the back of the nose irritates the throat
Medications - such as ace inhibitors used for high blood pressure
Acid reflux where stomach acid travels up into the oesophagus and irritates the wind pipe
Heart conditions, such as heart failure
Lung conditions, such as pulmonary embolism
Coughs can be productive which means that the cough loosens and brings up mucous; these are often called 'chesty coughs'. Coughs can also be dry, no mucous is produced and the cough is often tickly and recurrent.
Respiratory tract infections are the commonest cause of coughing and the cough can continue for several weeks after an infection has cleared. There is no need to see a doctor if you have one of these unless you have a lung condition such as asthma or COPD which is being worsened by the infection.
When should I visit the doctor with a cough?
Most coughs affect the upper respiratory tract and are caused by viral infections. They aren’t serious and will resolve by themselves in a few weeks.
Sometimes however, a cough may be a sign of a more serious underlying medical condition. If you experience any of the following warning signs, then you should make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible:
✔️ You have a new cough which has lasted more than three weeks.
✔️ You are coughing up blood (haemoptysis) or there is blood in your sputum.
✔️ You are losing weight unexpectedly.
✔️ You have night sweats.
✔️ You have a recurrent high temperature with your cough.
✔️ You are more out of breath than usual, especially if you have a lung condition such as asthma or COPD.
✔️ You have pain in your chest when you cough or breathe.
Diagnosing a cough
The doctor will listen while you describe your symptoms and will ask you a variety of questions to help ascertain the reason for your cough. These questions will include whether you smoke, whether you have a family history of any lung conditions and what your occupation is.
Certain jobs such as working with chemicals or being exposed to asbestos may increase your risk of some lung conditions including lung cancer.
The doctor will examine you which will include listening to your chest with a stethoscope, checking your temperature and seeing if you have any enlarged lymph glands.
The investigations needed vary according to what diagnosis the doctor is suspecting but may include:
Blowing into a device called a peak flow meter to check the capacity and force of your breathing.
Checking your blood oxygen levels with a small probe which clips onto your finger.
Sending a sample of your sputum to the lab to see if infection is present.
A chest x-ray.
A CT scan.
Based on the doctor’s findings and any test results, the cause of your cough can be diagnosed and appropriate treatment given.
If your cough is a continuous dry cough accompanied by a high temperature or fever and you experience a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, you could have contracted coronavirus (COVID-19). The current government advice outlines that you should arrange to have a test for COVID-19 and stay at home and self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms start.
How do you stop coughing? To stop a cough, you really need to know what the cause is. It might be possible to avoid the trigger, for example:
Reducing your exposure to pollen
Getting treatment for your acid reflux
In the case of respiratory infections however, coughs can’t be cured. They will clear as the infection resolves and this may take several weeks. In the meantime, there are some steps you can take to try to reduce your coughing and make you feel more comfortable:
• Rest and keep warm
Avoid overexerting yourself and take things easy to allow your body to fight the infection.
• Drink lots
Keep your throat moist by sipping fluids on and off throughout the day. Try hot drinks such as honey and lemon or cold drinks and see which works best for you.
• Suck a sweet
This will help to lubricate your throat and reduce dry, tickly coughs. You can use any hard sweet or try specifically designed cough lozenges.
• Try humidity
A humid atmosphere can loosen thick mucous and stop the throat drying out. You can use an air humidifier or inhale the steam from hot water in a bowl. Add some menthol crystals to the water or try a vapour chest rub if you are congested.
• Avoid sudden changes in temperature
Cold air can trigger a cough so wrap a scarf around your mouth and nose to warm the air you are breathing in. Going back into a warm house can make you cough too.
• Sleep more upright
Propping yourself up on an extra pillow or two at night should reduce coughing and help you sleep.
• Use painkillers
If coughing is making your throat sore then a simple painkiller such as paracetamol will help to reduce pain and make you more comfortable.
• Try cough medicines
Speak to your pharmacist about which one would be best for your type of cough. Different products are available for dry and productive coughs. Most are no more effective than the self-help measures listed above but they can be beneficial for some people.
It’s not always possible to avoid a cough but there are plenty of things we can all do to look after our lungs and keep them as healthy as possible:
✔️ If you are a smoker, then the single most important thing you can do to prevent a cough is to stop smoking. Speak to your local smoking cessation clinic for help and advice.
✔️ If you have a lung condition, then it’s important to attend your review appointments so your treatment can be assessed and adapted according to how you are feeling.
✔️ Regular exercise helps to keep lungs healthy – start with a few minutes of brisk walking each day and gradually build up.
✔️ It’s hard to sidestep viral respiratory infections but you can avoid meeting people you know who have a cough.
✔️ Keep hard surfaces clean and wash your hands frequently.
✔️ If you have a cough yourself, always cover your mouth when coughing, dispose of used tissues in a bin and wash your hands a lot.
Last updated: 11-11-2020
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