Although coughing can be a troubling symptom, it is usually your body's way of healing. Here are some tips to help ease your cough:
If you have a dry, tickling cough, try cough drops or hard candy. NEVER give these to a child under age 3, because they can cause choking.
Use a vaporizer or take a steamy shower. Both these things increase the moisture in the air and can help soothe a dry throat.
Drink plenty of fluids. Liquids help thin the mucus in your throat and make it easier to cough it up.
NOTE: Medical experts have recommended against using cough and cold drugs in children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cough medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely will not work for children, and they may have serious side effects.
Medications available without a prescription include:
Guaifenesin helps break up mucus. Drink lots of fluids if you take this medicine.
Decongestants help clear a runny nose and relieve postnasal drip. Do NOT give children under age 6 an over-the-counter decongestant unless specifically told to do so by your doctor. You should check with your doctor before taking decongestants if you have high blood pressure.
Do not expect a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for viral infections like colds or flu. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. Antibiotics also will not help coughs from allergies.
Call your health care provider if
Call 911 if you have:
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Hives or a swollen face or throat with difficulty swallowing
Call your doctor right away if you have:
A history of heart disease, swelling in your legs, or a cough that gets worse when you lie down (may be signs of congestive heart failure)
Been exposed to someone with tuberculosis
Cough in an infant younger than 3 months old
Cough that lasts longer than 10-14 days
Cough that produces blood
Fever (may be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics)
High-pitched sound (called stridor) when breathing in
Thick, foul-smelling, yellowish-green phlegm (could be a bacterial infection)
Unintentional weight loss or night sweats (could be tuberculosis)
Violent cough that begins suddenly
What to expect at your health care provider's office
In an emergency, you will be treated first to stabilize the condition. After the condition is stable, the doctor will ask questions about your cough, including:
If you have seasonal allergies like hay fever, stay indoors during days when airborne allergens are high. If possible, keep the windows closed and use an air conditioner. Avoid fans that draw in air from outdoors. Shower and change your clothes after being outside.
If you have allergies year round, cover your pillows and mattress with dust mite covers, use an air purifier, and avoid pets and other triggers.
Chang AB, Glomb WB. Guidelines for evaluating chronic cough in pediatrics: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129(1 Suppl):260S-283S.
Chung KF, Widdicombe JG. Cough. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 29.
Irwin RS, Baumann MH, Bolser DC, et al. Diagnosis and management of cough executive summary: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129(1 Suppl):1S-23S.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.