How Do You Get Rid of a Stubborn Cough?

Medically Reviewed on 7/26/2021
Stubborn cough remedies
A stubborn cough can be annoying, but it typically isn’t a sign of something more serious and can be treated in the following ways.

Getting rid of a stubborn cough may require cough suppressants, steam inhalation, saline gargles and/or anti-inflammatory medications. Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant (antitussive), is usually considered the first-line cough treatment. It may be given in combination with a mucolytic or expectorant (medications that loosen mucus in airways to be coughed out), such as guaifenesin.

A stubborn or chronic cough may require a doctor’s attention; however, people may try the following recommendations beforehand:

  • Half a teaspoon of honey before sleep has been shown to soothe coughs related to upper airway infection.
  • Sucking lozenges or sipping water may temporarily suppress a cough and relieve the sensations of throat irritation.
  • For productive (wet) cough, mucolytic medications, such as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), are important and designed specifically to break down the mucus, which is causing the irritation. Mucolytics have been shown to help reduce coughing in adults and children.
  • In some cases, taking antitussives may help if antihistamines and expectorants are not helpful.
  • Patients with recurrent episodes may need antibiotics, especially if a bacterial infection is diagnosed.
  • It is important to treat the underlying cause; however, most coughs are self-limiting where only supportive therapies, such as steam inhalation, saltwater gargles, antipyretics (acetaminophen) and cough suppressants are needed.

Although a quick fix might be tempting, simply slowing down could be helpful, which means, sometimes, taking a day off to get some rest. People should also drink enough water to stay hydrated since that can help break up any thick mucus that is causing the cough.

What are the causes of a stubborn cough?

A cough accompanying a cold or the flu is normal. It helps clear the airways of anything impeding normal breathing. However, chronic or severe coughing may be a sign of an underlying health condition, which may include:

  • An infection
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
    • A condition in which your airways become narrow and swollen and mucus production is increased.
  • Postnasal drip
    • Your cough reflex exists to clear your airways of any obstructions.
    • Postnasal drip, also called upper airway cough syndrome, is marked by an overproduction of mucus that often drips down the back of your throat, which (constantly) triggers the cough reflex.
  • Cystic fibrosis (CF)
    • A serious, inherited disease that thickens the mucus, causing it to become sticky and plug up your airways, resulting in a chronic cough.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
    • If your chronic cough is accompanied by heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth, it could be a symptom of acid reflux disease, GERD.
    • GERD is marked by stomach acid flowing up from your stomach to the throat via the esophagus, irritating the esophagus and causing a chronic cough.
    • The cough can worsen GERD, which in turn worsens the cough until you seek medical treatment.
  • Allergies
    • An allergy-related cough results from your body’s response to an allergen, an otherwise harmless substance (in most cases) that triggers your immune system.
    • Seasonal allergies are extremely common, triggered by things such as dust and pet dander.
    • Coughs from allergies tend to be dry and persistent, or they may worsen during certain seasons or in different environments.

When should I see a doctor?

While most coughs can take three weeks or less to settle down, some stubborn coughs may be a sign of a more serious issue.  In those cases, visit your doctor if:

  • You feel more unwell than you would expect.
  • The cough started after you have choked on something.
  • You are coughing up blood.
  • Your cough is not getting better within three days.
  • You have chest or shoulder pain in addition to your cough.
  • You are finding it difficult to breathe.
  • You are losing weight for no apparent reason.
  • Your voice becomes hoarse and stays that way even after the cough has settled.
  • You notice new neck lumps or swellings above your collarbones.

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Cold and Flu: Finding Relief for Your Cough See Slideshow

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Medically Reviewed on 7/26/2021
References
Harvard Health Publishing. That Nagging Cough. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/that-nagging-cough

Michigan Medicine. Relieving a Cough. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/ug1887

Carrasco A. What Does a Persistent Cough Mean? Valleywise Health. https://blog.valleywisehealth.org/what-a-persistent-cough-means/