A cough is a sudden forcing of air from the lungs. It is a common symptom of illness. Although coughs often sound bad, keep in mind that coughing is a good reflex that clears out the airways in the lungs and protects you from getting pneumonia.
You may have a dry and hacking type of cough. Or you may have a wet cough and cough up a lot of mucus. When you continuously cough for more than 5 minutes, it is called a coughing spasm.
What is the cause?
Most coughs are caused by a viral infection. An infection of the trachea (windpipe) is called tracheitis. An infection of the bronchi (larger air passages in the lungs) is called bronchitis. Most people get such a viral infection a couple of times a year as part of a cold. These infections are usually not serious.
How long will it last?
Usually bronchitis causes a dry tickly cough that lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Sometimes the cough becomes loose (wet) for a few days, and you cough up a lot of phlegm (mucus). This is usually a sign that the end of the illness is near.
How can I take care of myself?
Medicines to loosen the cough and thin the secretions
Cough drops: Most coughs can be controlled by sucking on cough drops. These help coat the irritated throat. If not available, you can use hard candy.
Warm liquids for coughing spasms: Warm liquids usually relax the airway and loosen up the mucus. Start with warm lemonade, warm apple juice, or warm herbal tea.
Cough and cold medicines are not as helpful as honey. In general, you should use these medicines only for dry coughs that interfere with sleep, school attendance, or work. They also help people who have chest pain from coughing spasms.
Drink adequate fluids to prevent dehydration. This will also loosen the phlegm in the airway.
Humidifiers in the treatment of cough
Dry air tends to make coughs worse. Use a humidifier in your bedroom if your home is dry.
You will find that gym and exercise trigger coughing spasms when you have bronchitis. If so, you should avoid such physical activity temporarily.
Active and passive smoking
Don’t be around anyone who smokes. Also avoid smoking since a cough may last weeks longer than it would without smoking.
Common mistakes in treating cough
Antihistamines, decongestants, and fever medicines are found in many cough syrups. There is no proof that these ingredients will help your cough, and the antihistamines may make you sleepy. Expectorants are of unproven value but harmless. Stay with the simple home remedies mentioned above or talk with your healthcare provider.
Milk does not need to be eliminated from the diet. Restricting it improves the cough only if you are allergic to milk.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call IMMEDIATELY if:
Your breathing becomes fast or labored (when you are not coughing).
Call during office hours if:
A fever lasts more than 3Â days.
The cough lasts more than 3 weeks.
You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of â€œMy Child Is Sick,â€ American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2010-06-03 Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.