Coughing is symptomatic of a variety of physical complaints, some mild, some serious. It may be triggered by something incidental such as inhaling a small bit of food or noxious chemical fumes. But most often it’s a result of the common cold, when secretions of mucus irritate the upper respiratory tract. Coughs due to colds usually disappear without treatment within a few weeks. In the meantime, the ill person may need relief in order to sleep or work.
You can often soothe a cough by drinking warm or cold liquids, or by inhaling steam from a vaporizer or a hot shower or mist from a humidifier. Or put a towel over your head and put your face over a sink full of steaming water. Sucking hard candies or lozenges sometimes gives relief.
Cough medicine may help, provided it does not contain ingredients that work against one another, as some over-the-counter remedies do. There are two types of cough medications: expectorants that loosen secretions so that they can be coughed out, and suppressants, drugs that suppress the cough reflex. Read ingredient labels. Expectorants include glyceryl gualacolate and potassium iodide. Suppressants include codeine and benzonatate (prescription drugs) and dextromethorphan hydrobromide. When coughs are more serious Coughs requiring medical attention are those accompanied by fever and those that persist longer than 3 weeks. A cough with fever may indicate flu or bronchitis-and if you’re short of breath, pneumonia. A severe productive cough (one that entails spitting up thick, yellowish mucus) may be a sign of bronchitis (either acute or chronic), croup (in children), or other serious conditions. Consult a doctor promptly if you or a family member coughs up blood or if any cough persists more than 3 weeks and seems to be getting worse.