Coughing is a reflex reaction of the upper respiratory system characterized by the rapid expulsion of air from the lungs through the mouth. It’s the body’s natural way to clear the throat and breathing passage of foreign particles, irritants, fluids and mucus. Healthy people cough on occasion, which is perfectly normal. However, coughs that persist for several weeks may signify a medical problem that requires treatment.
Types of Coughs
Coughs can be broadly categorized into two types: dry and wet. As the name implies, a wet cough (sometimes called chesty cough) produces fluid secretions in the form of sputum (phlegm). The sputum in a wet cough can appear yellowish or greenish, which indicates the presence of a bacterial infection. A dry cough on the other hand will not produce any sputum. It can be irritating to the lungs and throat and may be a sign of a viral infection.
Different sub-types of dry coughs can be further broken down into the following groups:
- Stress Cough
This type of cough is simply a reflexive spasm of the airways induced by an irritant. A stress cough produces no sputum and is not related to any infections.
- Croup or Dry Barking Cough
Croup is a dry cough that causes a distinct barking sound. The barking sound occurs due to swelling or a viral infection just below the voice box in the larynx. Other symptoms may include pain in the throat and difficulty with breathing.
- Dry Hacking Cough
The dry hacking cough mainly develops when there’s a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). A hallmark symptom for this type of cough is the feeling that something is stuck in the throat.
- Whooping Cough
A vaccine for whooping cough exists and although cases of infection are rare, this disease mostly affects children. Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection. Patients with this illness experience severer fits of fast coughing followed by a deep breath that produces a “whooping” sound. These bouts of deep, rapid coughing cause temporary shortness of oxygen and hence a child can turn blue during severe attacks.
What Causes Coughs?
When the nerve endings in your airways become irritated, the body’s natural reaction is to cough out the irritant. Substances that irritate these nerve endings could be anything from pollen and smoke, to food particles and germs.
With the exception of chocking, coughing could signify the presence of an upper respiratory infection or other medical conditions. So, coughing in essence is not an illness in itself but rather a symptom. On the other hand, a disease-related cough can be either acute or chronic and how long it will last depends on the underlying cause of infection.
Acute Cough Causes
An acute cough typically lasts 3 weeks or less, and both infections and irritants can contribute to a short-term cough. Here is an outline of common causes for acute coughs:
- Upper respiratory infections (e.g. the common cold, flu, laryngitis and whooping cough)
- Infections in the lower respiratory tract such as pneumonia and bronchitis
- Irritants like dust and smoke
- Allergic reactions such as hay fever and rhinitis
If a short-term cough is not treated early, it could become sub-acute. A sub-acute cough lasts for 3 to 8 weeks and it can remain even after a cold or other respiratory infection clears away.
Chronic Cough Causes
Chronic coughs are those that persist for more than 8 weeks. Persistent coughs mostly result from chronic illnesses such as:
Coughing in asthmatic patients may be accompanied with wheezing or difficulty in breathing. Symptoms tend to worsen after being exposed to pollen, cold air, smoke, perfumes, or other irritants.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is a disease in the digestive tract often caused by a weak muscle between the stomach and esophagus. This weakness allows stomach acid to splash back (reflux) into the esophagus. These stomach juices sometimes reach the back of the throat and leave behind a bitter aftertaste.
Since stomach acid is corrosive, it also irritates the throat thus causing a chronic cough. In more severe cases of acid reflux, stomach juices can enter the airways and damage lung tissues.
- Sinus infection
Sinusitis is a condition caused by extra mucus that trickles down the throat. Postnasal drip irritates the throat and often triggers wet coughs.
- Bronchitis and Pneumonia
These lower respiratory tract infections cause both acute and chronic coughs. Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can cause pneumonia or bronchitis. Treatment is therefore based on the particular pathogen that’s causing the infection.
Smoking and allergic reactions are other causes of chronic coughs. You can also suffer from a persistent cough if you’re using certain medications, especially ACE inhibitors used for high blood pressure treatment.
Best Home Remedies to Get Rid of Coughs Naturally
Whether it’s acute or chronic, coughing is a symptom that greatly reduces a patient’s quality of life. If it is persistent, you may have trouble sleeping, socializing, or concentrating on your work. Prolonged coughing can also lead to side effects such as chest pain, exhaustion, loss of bladder control, and dizziness.
Fortunately, you can treat coughs with over-the-counter medicines. But if you prefer to avoid chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs, here are some of the best home remedies to get rid of cough naturally:
- Increase Fluid Intake
Drinking more fluids will help you feel better when nursing a cough. Staying hydrated is particularly important if you’re losing fluids through sputum or sweat because of a fever. Warm drinks will also be helpful since they thin mucus secretions and keep your throat from feeling irritated. Once mucus secretions brake up, they’re much easier to cough up.
For the best results, avoid carbonated drinks and citrus juices that can irritate a sore throat. Instead, drink hot tea with lemon, boiled water with honey or warm broth to loosen congestion and reduce coughing.
- Gargle Salty Water
Gargling salt water is a time-honored way to soothe sore throats that lead to coughs. This is also perhaps the most inexpensive remedy for irritating coughs. To use this method, all you need to do is:
- Mix 1/2 a teaspoon of salt and 8 ounces of warm distilled water.
- Sip the salty water and gargle for about 60 seconds. Do not swallow the gargle but spit it out when you’re done.
Salt has natural antiseptic properties while warm water moisturizes a dry throat. Combine these two therapeutic effects and you have a natural remedy that will help you cure a cough.
Honey is a natural demulcent. In other words, it relieves irritation in the mucous membranes by forming a protective film. This can greatly suppress coughs and soothe an irritated throat. Some studies have even found the cough suppressing properties of honey to be as effective as over-the-counter medicines that contain dextromethorphan.
You can eat a spoonful of honey or add it to warm drinks when treating coughs. It’s also perfectly safe to give honey to children over the age of two. Just remember that honey shouldn’t be given to infants who are under 12 months since it can cause a serious type of food poisoning known as infant botulism.
- Thyme Tea
When battling a dry, irritating cough, thyme can be an effective remedy. It’s rich in flavonoids that relax the throat muscles involved in coughing. These compounds reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract as well, leading to less coughing and increased comfort.
Thyme oil is toxic to consume, but you can use fresh or dried leaves from the plant to make tea. To brew thyme tea:
- Add 2 teaspoons of crushed thyme leaves or 3 fresh sprigs to 1 cup (or 8-fluid ounces) of water
- Cover the cup and steep for 10 minutes to extract the thyme flavor
- Strain your thyme tea and drink while hot. Add a tablespoon of honey to soothe an irritated throat.
Peppermint is an excellent natural expectorant for soothing dry coughs. It contains menthol, which is an ingredient that opens up airways by breaking up mucus. Peppermint oil is available at pharmacies and health shops. You can also use it in steam baths to decongest blocked airways or encourage mucus secretions. Just add 3 to 4 drops of the oil in hot water and inhale the peppermint vapors with a towel draped over your head.
Another option is to make peppermint tea with lemon juice and raw honey. You have to drink the mixture while it is still hot for the best results.
Eucalyptus is one of the common ingredients in many medications such as lozenges, cough syrups, and ointments. It has great healing power, especially for cold related symptoms like coughs. If your respiratory tract is congested, rubbing some eucalyptus oil on the chest and nose can help to clear mucus secretions. The oil has a distinct essence that unblocks nasal congestion and you can use it in baths as well to soothe an irritated respiratory tract.
Eucalyptus also contains cineole, an active ingredient that relieves coughs just as an expectorant drug would. It’s not safe to ingest the oil, but the dried leaves may be used to make tea. Keep in mind though that eucalyptus should not be used by patients with asthma, low blood pressure, kidney disease, or liver issues.
Lemons are a rich source of vitamin C that helps to fight off infection. Therefore, adding this fruit to your diet will do you a lot of good when recovering from a cough. To prepare your own homemade cough syrup, simply combine 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with an equal amount of honey. Alternatively, drinking lemon juice mixed with honey can relieve a sore throat and suppress the urge to cough.
The ginger herb has a therapeutic effect on coughs, particularly dry coughs. It acts as a natural expectorant and hence assists in the break down and expulsion of mucus from the lungs.
Chewing on fresh raw ginger stops the irritating trickle of postnasal drip that causes coughs in the first place. You can also choose to grate or chop a small piece of ginger and add it to boiled water or tea to extract the flavor. Drinking this herbal solution 3 to 4 times daily can provide relief from persistent coughing, a sore throat, and congestion.
Give your immune system a boost by consuming raw garlic or use it in your cooking to prepare warm broths. Garlic possesses antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that help in the treatment of coughs. Here’s a simple garlic remedy to alleviate cough symptoms:
- Add 3 to 4 cloves of garlic in 16oz of water and bring to a boil.
- When the water cools down to room temperature, add a table spoon of honey and drink the mixture.
- Eat More Pineapple
Pineapple is a nutrient rich fruit packed with Vitamin C. And while it will give your immune system a boost, you also get added cough fighting power from this fruit. Pineapple contains Bromelain, an enzyme that suppresses coughs and thins mucus. Some studies also suggest that this compound helps to relieve allergy-based sinus irritations that give rise to coughs.
You can buy Bromelain supplements at pharmacies without a doctor’s prescription. However, these drugs are not ideal for patients who take blood thinners. To avoid side effects, speak to your doctor about taking Bromelain supplements, especially if you’re using any other medication.
Drinking 1 cup of chamomile before bedtime is highly recommended if coughing keeps you awake at night. Chamomile induces sleep, which is important during cough treatment. When combined with a natural cough suppressant, chamomile can help you sleep better.
Turmeric treats dry coughs in a simple and natural way. A few suggestions to include turmeric in your cough treatment regimen include:
- Mixing 1 teaspoon of turmeric with 1 tablespoon of honey. Use this remedy 2 to 3 times a day to get relief from a dry cough.
- You can also mix 1 teaspoon each of turmeric powder and black pepper in a cup of boiled water. Add cinnamon sticks and stir in a tablespoon of honey. Drink 1 cup of this concoction daily until your cough symptoms start to improve.
- Alternatively, prepare herbal tea by adding 1 teaspoon each of turmeric powder and carom seeds to boiling water. Mix 1/2 a cup of milk with the water and add some honey to taste. Drink this herbal solution 2 to 3 times a day to relieve a persistent cough.
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms introduced in the body to promote a healthy microbial balance. They don’t cure coughs directly, but rather support immune function, helping you fight off infections.
You can find Probiotics in many foods, but yogurts with live and active cultures are the best sources of these good bacteria. As a word of caution, dairy products like yogurt tend to thicken phlegm. Since thick sputum is hard to cough up, make sure to limit your yogurt intake. There are Probiotics supplements as well that can offer an alternative to yogurt.
Marshmallows have been used for centuries to treat sore throats and soothe dry coughs. It comes from a perennial plant called Althaea officinalis. This plant produces mucilage, a thick gluey substance that coats the throat to stop dry, irritating coughs.
Marshmallow is particularly helpful when treating a chronic cough caused by prolonged use of ACE inhibitors. You can buy herbal tea that contains marshmallow root at natural food stores.
Another option is to brew marshmallow tea using the plant’s dried leaves or roots. In addition, there are also capsules that contain this herb for those who prefer a supplement. Bear in mind, however, that marshmallow is not recommended as a cough remedy for children.
- White horehound
White horehound is a herbal extract known for its ability to induce mucus secretions. It’s a natural expectorant that promotes a wet, productive cough. As such, you can use it to clear up a congested trachea, bronchi, or lungs.
This herb often comes in powder form or as a juice supplement. Use in tea and drink 3-times daily to soothe a dry cough. You may want to add some honey since white horehound has a distinct bitter taste. Alternatively, go for pharmaceutical lozenges that have been formulated using this herb.
- Cayenne or Black Pepper
Cayenne and black pepper are mostly used in cooking. However, these spices are not just limited to the culinary world. Many people don’t know that pepper is a great remedy for chesty coughs. It helps to stimulate mucus flow and circulation, allowing you to expel all that extra sputum that’s congesting your lungs.
There are several ways to use cayenne or black pepper in cough remedies. Some examples include:
- 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper mixed with 1 tablespoon of honey and 8oz of water. Honey not only makes this solution drinkable but also adds its antibacterial properties.
- Create a homemade cough syrup by mixing a 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper with 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 tablespoon of honey, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons of water. Drink the syrup 2 to 3 times daily until symptoms improve.
Much like lemons and pineapples, grapes also contain vitamin C that will give your body’s defenses a boost when fighting off viral and bacterial related infections. The special expectorant properties that grapes possess make them good for coughs. To use grapes when treating coughs, simply eat the fruits or blend them to make fresh juice.
- Licorice Root Tea
Licorice root works as both a demulcent and expectorant. In addition to thinning mucus, it helps to relieve the respiratory tract. Much of the therapeutic power of Licorice root can be attributed to its main active ingredient, glycyrrhizin. This enzyme helps to sooth inflammation that may be irritating your throat or blocking nasal passages.
Dried Licorice root can be bought as herb for preparing tea. Just add 2 tablespoons of the powder to 8 ounces of fresh water and brew a nice hot cup of Licorice Root tea. Drink 2 cups daily to promote faster recovery from a cough related infection. It’s important to note that steroid users or people with kidney problems do not react well to Licorice Root.
- Use a Humidifier
Dry air can aggravate coughing or make it more persistent. When there’s no moisture in the air, mucus tends to harden. Dried secretions don’t move easily and can therefore make breathing difficult when secretions get stuck in the lungs or throat. Needless to say, coughing up semi-dried snot can be uncomfortable. Creating a moist environment will thus help to soothe a cough. You can use a humidifier for this, but make sure to clean it regularly. The moisture in humidifiers creates a breeding ground for mold or mildew. These disease causing pathogens could become airborne if your humidifier is not kept clean.
- Rid the Air of Irritants
Keeping your environment free of allergens is important if you tend to experience coughs when exposed to irritants. Perfumes, air fresheners, and even scented soaps can seem harmless when using them in your home. But these substances might lead to sinus irritation, which is a precursor for chronic coughs.
If you’re asthmatic or have very sensitive airways, find out what allergens trigger coughing and sneezing flare-ups and make an effort to avoid them.
- Take Warm Baths and Showers
The steam from a hot bath or shower moisturizes your airways, making it easier to cough up phlegm. Hot baths can be soothing when you have a cold related cough since they also help improve a stuffy or runny nose. The great thing about hot baths is that you can make them even more therapeutic. All you have to do is mix your bathing water with a few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus or tea tree oil, which help to fight off bacteria and viruses.
- Get Plenty of Rest
Getting enough sleep not only aids in the fast recovery from a cough infection, but also helps to prevent disease in the first place. When you fall asleep, your body breathes a sigh of relief. This is the only time it gets to build new cells, reinforce the immune system, and prepare itself for another day.
If coughing spells keep you awake all night, try sleeping with your head elevated. A few extra pillows will keep you from feeling as though you’re choking on phlegm and thus improve your quality of sleep.
Cough Treatment Options/Medications
Over-the-counter medications can provide symptomatic relief for coughs. There are different types of cough medications you can use. The drugs you should use largely depend on the underlying condition that’s causing the cough. Common medications used to treat coughs include:
These drugs won’t work on viral infections. Antibiotics are only effective if your cough is due to a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract.
Chronic coughs caused by acid reflux can be prevented with antacids. This option, however, should only be considered if lifestyle changes have failed to improve GERD conditions. In more severe cases, chronic acid reflux patients may require surgery to resolve the problem.
- Cough Suppressants
If you tend to have coughing fits at night, a cough suppressant can help you sleep better. These medications are especially beneficial when suffering from a persistent dry cough. It should be noted that coughing out sputum is productive since this relieves congested lungs.
- Antihistamines and Asthma Medications
Antihistamines keep irritants at bay. They’re also helpful medications for patients who experience coughs due to allergic reactions. Asthma medications, on the other hand, widen airways and prevent inflammation to help treat asthma related coughs.
- Expectorants and Decongestants
These medications help to clear upper and lower airways of excess secretions. There are many decongestants in the market that come in the form of lozenges, ointments, and balms. The most common include phenylpropanolamine and pseudoephedrine. For expectorants, an effective ingredient to lookout for is Guaifenesin.
When to See a Doctor
Mild coughs are never a cause for alarm and mostly go away within 3 weeks without the need for medical assistance. However, make sure to see a doctor if you have:
- Nursed a cough for more than 3 weeks without any improvement
- Severer coughing symptoms that keep getting worse
- Chest pain or cough up sputum with blood
- Cough spells that cause difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath
- Significantly swollen glands in your neck
- Lost weight suddenly after developing a cough related illness
Your general practitioner can order chest X-rays as well as allergy and breathing tests to determine whether the cause of chronic coughing is due to an underlying disease. Analysis of phlegm will also help to find out whether a cough infection is viral or bacterial related so that the right medication can be prescribed.