Certain circumstances require you to seek immediate medical attention. You should seek emergency medical care immediately if:
- A violent cough begins suddenly and is accompanied by a high-pitched wheezing sound when inhaling. A small object may have been inhaled into the airways.
- You cough up blood.
- You are experiencing shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
You should call your doctor if:
- Your cough is producing sputum that is thick, foul-smelling, or yellow, green, or rusty in color.
- Your cough lasts for more than 7 to 10 days.
- Your cough is accompanied by other symptoms, such as a fever of 101º F or higher or abdominal swelling.
- Your chronic cough is accompanied by an unintentional weight loss.
- The cough is in an infant less than three months old.
You can alleviate a cough with some simple techniques at home. To ease the discomfort of a cough, try the following:
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids to thin mucus and make it easier to cough up. Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, however, which act as diuretics and may cause you to lose more water than you take in.
- Keep the air in your home moist. Use a humidifier. Taking a steamy shower may also help.
- If your cough is caused by postnasal drip from the common cold and a runny nose, try an over-the-counter decongestant, which can temporarily dry up nasal passages. But use these products sparingly. After a few days, decongestants often have a “rebound effect,” which makes the nasal passages become even more congested than before. (Warning: If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, prostate problems, diabetes, or thyroid problems, don't take a decongestant without first consulting your doctor—pseudoephedrine can raise blood pressure and make the heart work harder. In addition, children under the age of six should not be given a decongestant unless the drug is prescribed by a doctor.)
- Suck on hard candy to relieve a dry, tickling cough.
- If you cough a lot at night, try sleeping with the head of your bed raised six to eight inches. This will keep mucus secretions from pooling in your throat. It will also help keep stomach acid from returning to your esophagus.
- If you smoke, the best way to stop coughing is to stop smoking.
Your doctor is the best source of information on the drug treatment choices available to you.
To help ease the pain of coughs, herbalists recommend a variety of teas. To suppress a cough, try teas made from coltsfood (Tussilago farfara) or wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina). For productive coughs, try herbs that act as expectorants, such as horehound (Marrubium vulgare), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), mullein (Verbascum densiflorum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), or ginger (Zingiber officianalis).
You can also make a natural cough syrup by boiling a lemon for 10 minutes, letting it cool, and then squeezing out the juice. Add two tablespoons of honey and two tablespoons of glycerine.
A natural expectorant can be made with onion and honey. In a bowl, cover a thinly sliced onion with honey. Let stand for 10 to 12 hours, then strain. Take one tablespoon of the liquid several times a day.
Herbal chest rubs may also relieve your cough. Try a rub made with oil of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) or myrrh (Commiphora molmol).
A chronic cough in a child under the age of 18 months may be a symptom of a serious heart defect or lung disease that was present at birth. If your child has a persistent cough, be sure to have it checked by a pediatrician.
Most coughs are not dangerous and can be successfully treated. Some coughs come and go quickly. Others, especially those caused by postnasal drip or the common cold can take weeks or months to stop after treatment has begun.
If your cough continues or worsens, see your doctor. People who have a chronic underlying medical condition, such as chronic bronchitis or asthma, should remain under the ongoing care of a doctor.
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