A lot of things can make you cough:

  • An infection.
  • An allergy.
  • Cigarette smoke.
  • Something stuck in your windpipe.
  • Dry air.

Coughing can be a sign of many ailments. Your body uses coughing to clear your lungs and airways. Coughing itself is not the problem. What causes the cough is the problem. There are 3 kinds of coughs:

  • Productive – A productive cough brings up mucus or phlegm.
  • Non-productive – A non-productive cough is dry. It doesn’t bring up any mucus.
  • Reflex – A reflex cough comes from a problem somewhere else, like the ear or stomach.
  • How to treat your cough depends on what kind it is, what caused it, and your other symptoms. Treat the cause and soothe the irritation. Stay away from smoking and secondhand smoke, especially when you have a cough. Smoke hurts your lungs and makes it harder for your body to fight infection.

Self-Care Tips

For productive coughs (coughs that bring up mucus):

  • Drink plenty of liquids. Water helps loosen mucus and soothe a sore throat. Fruit juices are good, too.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer, especially in the bedroom. Put a humidifier on the furnace.
  • Take a shower. The steam can help thin the mucus.
  • Ask your pharmacist for an over-the-counter expectorant. Robitussin is one kind.
  • Stop smoking cigarettes, cigars, and/or pipes. Stay away from places where people smoke.

For non-productive coughs (coughs that are dry):

  • Drink plenty of liquids.
  • Drink hot drinks like tea with lemon and honey to soothe the throat.
  • Suck on cough drops or hard candy. (Don’t give these to children under 5 years of age).
  • Take an over-the-counter cough medicine that has dextromethorphan. Robitussin-DM is one of these.
  • Try a decongestant if you have post-nasal drip.
  • Make your own cough medicine. Mix one part lemon juice and two parts honey. (Don’t give this to children less than 1 year old).

Other tips include:

  • Don’t give children under 5 years of age small objects like paper clips and buttons or foods like peanuts and popcorn. A small child can easily get something caught in their throat or windpipe. Even adults should be careful to chew and swallow foods slowly so they don’t “go down the wrong way.”
  • Don’t smoke. Stay away from second-hand smoke.
  • Stay away from chemical gases that can hurt your lungs.

Questions to Ask

Do you have these problems?

  • Trouble breathing and not able to say more than 4-5 words between breaths (a baby or small child may be unable to cry, eat or drink a bottle)
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Coughing up blood

Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Is the person who has the cough a baby or small child? If so, does he or she have these problems, too?

  • The cough sounds like a seal’s bark (high and whistling)
  • A fever of 102oF to 103oF

Yes: See Doctor

Did the cough start suddenly and last an hour or more without stopping?
Yes: See Doctor

Do wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing or swelling of the abdomen, legs and ankles accompany the cough?
Yes: See Doctor

If the person with the cough is an adult, is there a fever of 102oF or higher?
Yes: See Doctor

Do you have any of these problems with the cough?

  • Weight loss for no reason
  • Feeling tired
  • A lot of sweating at night

Yes: See Doctor

Does your chest hurt only when you cough and does the pain go away when you sit up or lean forward?
Yes: See Doctor

Do you cough up something thick and green, yellow, or rust-colored, with or without an odor?
Yes: See Doctor

Has the cough lasted more than 2 weeks without getting better?
Yes: Call Doctor
Provide Self-Care

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021