What is a cough?
A cough is a normal body function that helps protect the lungs from debris. It can be a symptom of many types of respiratory conditions, but often it is caused by common cold or flu viruses and allergies. Most coughs can be treated at home with simple cough remedies.
A cough is a spontaneous reflex. Your throat and airways have nerves that sense debris and irritants. When mucous, dust, chemicals, or germs enter your throat and airways, the nerves will sense them and you will automatically cough to get rid of them. This helps keep your lungs clear and healthy.
Symptoms of a cough
If you have a cough, you may experience:
If you have a virus or allergies, you may also experience other symptoms, including:
Causes of cough
A cough is a normal reflex to keep your lungs clear. You may start coughing if you inhale dust, chemicals, smoke, or air pollutants.
While occasional coughing can be normal, other, more serious conditions may cause coughing, including:
Who can get a cough
Anyone can develop a cough when they are around secondhand smoke, dust, or other chemicals. This a healthy response to protect the lungs and keep them clear of fluid and irritating substances. People with allergies may also develop a cough when they encounter allergens.
Anyone can also contract a common cold or flu virus, which can produce a cough. People with asthma or lung disease may experience worse coughing from a cold or flu virus than people with healthy lungs.
However, lung diseases are less common. Experts don’t know what causes all lung diseases, but some pollutants and chemicals like asbestos and radon may lead to disease like asthma, emphysema, or lung cancer. Some diseases like cystic fibrosis are genetic.
Tests for a cough
Coughs are common and can usually be treated at home with cough remedies. However, if your cough lasts longer than three weeks, you may need to visit your doctor.
Your doctor may take your personal and medical history and examine your throat, ears, sinuses, take your temperature, and listen to heart and lungs. They may ask you how long you’ve had the cough and about your symptoms.
Depending on your symptoms, they may perform more tests, including:
- Throat swab
- Chest or sinus X Ray
- Sputum culture, if you are coughing up mucus
- Lung function test
Treatment for a cough
There is no cure for a cough, but it can be treated. Most coughs go away on their own and can be managed with home cough remedies. These treatments may include:
To manage your cough at home, your can use over-the-counter medications from your pharmacy, including:
- Cough medicines
- Cough drops or lozenges
Do not give cough medicines or cough drops to children under age four. Some people should not take cough medicines and decongestants. Make sure to speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
Your doctor may prescribe some medications, including:
Home care and alternative cough remedies
If you are sick with a cold or flu virus, it is important to rest and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Fluids may also help thin the mucus.
You may also be able to use other home cough remedies, including:
- Hot lemon and honey drink
- Vaporizer or steamy shower
- Saline drops or nasal spray to relieve congestion
- A chest rub with peppermint or eucalyptus oil
Do not give honey to children under age one. Do not use peppermint or eucalyptus oil on or near the face of children under age six.
If you are not sick or you have allergies, you may need to make lifestyle adjustments like quitting smoking or avoiding allergens and secondhand smoke.
Complications of a cough
Complications of a cough may include:
- A high-pitched sound when inhaling
- A sudden, violent cough
- A cough that lasts longer than three weeks
- Chest pain
- High fever
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
If you develop these symptoms, you should seek medical attention.
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St. Luke's Hospital: "Cough."
Office on Women's Health: "Lung disease."
American Lung Association: "Diagnosis and Treating Cough."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis).
Tisserand, R. Young, R. Essential Oil Safety Second Edition, Elsevier, 2014.
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Children's Cough Causes and TreatmentsChildren's cough causes include infection, acid reflux, asthma, allergies or sinus infection, whooping cough, and exposure to irritants. Treatment for a child's cough include cough medicine for children over the age of four.
Chronic CoughChronic cough is a cough that does not go away and is generally a symptom of another disorder such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, sinus infection, cigarette smoking, GERD, postnasal drip, bronchitis, pneumonia, medications, and less frequently tumors or other lung disease.
Chronic cough treatment is based on the cause, but may be soothed natural and home remedies.
Cold and Cough Medicine for Infants and Children
The safety of giving infants and children over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicine is important for caregivers to understand. While there is no "gold standard" recommendation for giving infants and children OTC cold and cough medicine for fever, aches, cough, and runny nose, a few standards have been recommended.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that OTC cold and cough medicine only be used in children age four years and older.
The American College of Chest Physicians recommend that these medicines only be used in children age 15 years and older.
The FDA recommends that OTC cold and cough medicine be used in children 2 years of age and older.
However, there is agreement in regard to which OTC medications should not be used in children under the age of four (or the age of two, depending upon which guidelines are used), and they are 1) certain antihistamines like brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine maleate, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl); 2) cough expectorants (guaifenesin); 3) cough suppressants (dextromethorphan, DM); and 4) decongestants (pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine).
Aspirin should never be given to infants, children, and adolescents due to the possibility of a rare, but often severe and even fatal illness called Reye's syndrome.
FDA. "Most Young Children with a Cough or Cold Don't Need Medicines." July 18, 2017.
FDA. "Use Caution When Giving Cough and Cold Products to Kids." Updated: Nov 04, 2016.
Cold and Flu: Finding Fast Cough ReliefRemedies for coughing to relieve symptoms, thin mucus, and clear phlegm include cough syrup and honey in hot water. Use suppressants to treat a dry cough. See a doctor when home remedies are not enough. Bronchitis or another condition may be to blame.
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How Can I Stop My Child From Coughing?Treatment for cough is not recommended unless the cough interferes with the child’s sleep or activity or is accompanied by a fever. Different age groups of children require different therapies to stop them from coughing. Some good home remedies to treat cough in children include honey, warm milk, hydration, steam inhalation, resting, saline nose drops and other strategies.
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