Learn the different types of coughs and their causes. Find advice on treating a cough at home, a list of over-the-counter medications for adults and guidelines for treating a kid’s cough.
It is described as nagging, dry, wet, tickling, barking and hacking, to name a few. Whatever the type, a cough can keep sleep at bay and make you generally miserable.
Coughs that last a long time can often be blamed on postnasal drip, asthma, infections, medications (such as those used to treat high blood pressure) or frequent heartburn. It can take time to find out what is causing a lasting cough. But once the underlying cause can be found and treated, the cough can usually be managed.
How to treat a cough at home
To help ease your cough, try these self-care remedies:
- Cough lozenges or hard candy can soothe dry, tickling coughs. Do not give them to a child under age 3, though, because they could cause choking.
- Increase humidity in the air by using a cool-mist humidifier or taking a steamy shower. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the humidifier.
- Drink more fluids. This may help to thin secretions in the throat and make it easier to cough up.
- Stop smoking. This may ease or completely relieve your cough within weeks. Talk to your doctor about medications and smoking cessation programs that can improve your chances of quitting.
- Avoid secondhand smoke.
Medications for a cough: adults
Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following, depending on what is causing your cough:
- Antihistamine with a decongestant. This may be recommended for adults with a stuffy nose, allergies and postnasal drip. Antihistamines can often stop the postnasal drip that comes from allergies. Decongestants help relieve stuffy nose and nasal congestion. They are not recommended, however, for people with certain medical problems or who take certain medicines.
- Cough suppressants. Some doctors suggest cough suppressants for dry, hacking coughs. These medicines lessen the urge to cough. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant often used in over-the-counter medicines. Cough medicines with the initials DM in the name contain this suppressant. Dextromethorphan is sometimes abused by older children and teens. Be careful to monitor any usage very closely and keep medicine in a secure place.
- Expectorants. These medicines make mucus thinner so it is easier to cough up, but they will not treat your cough. The drug used most often as an expectorant is guaifenesin.
Check with your doctor before taking these or any over-the-counter medicines if you have medical problems, allergies, or take other medicines.
Note: Coughing that is related to smoking, asthma or chronic bronchitis should not be suppressed or stopped. In these cases, coughing helps keep the breathing passages open. Talk to your doctor if you have a cough that does not go away or that worsens.
Treating a cough in children
Makers of cough and cold medications now recommend that these medications not be given to children under the age of 4. The FDA is evaluating the use of these medicines for all children under the age of 12. Talk to your doctor before you give any of these medicines to your child. If your doctor recommends an over-the-counter product, make sure to carefully follow all directions on the label.
For kids over 3 years old, try nonmedicated cough drops. These can help soothe your child’s throat and lessen the urge to cough.
Children get lots of colds, and it’s natural for parents to want to help them feel better. Instead of reaching for a medicine bottle, try these time-tested and doctor-approved ways to keep your child comfortable:
- Offer extra fluids to help ease congestion and fever.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.
- To clear a stuffy nose, use a bulb syringe or saline nose drops (in babies, only one drop at a time and one side at a time).
- Use a cool-mist humidifier to moisten the air and make breathing easier.
Note about aspirin
Aspirin or aspirin-containing products (e.g. bismuth subsalicylate – Pepto Bismol) should not be given to children 18 years old and younger due to the risk of Reye syndrome.