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Having a cough is one of the most common reasons for seeing your doctor. Normal coughing is important to keep your throat and airways clear by getting rid of mucus or other irritating particles. However, a long-lasting (chronic) or severe cough may mean you have an underlying disease or disorder.
Coughs can be dry or "productive," which means that you are bringing up sputum or phlegm when you cough. An acute cough typically lasts no longer than 2 - 3 weeks. A chronic cough lasts longer than 4 weeks.
Many illnesses can cause cough. Acute coughs usually begin suddenly and are often due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection. Coughs from a lung infection such as bronchitis can start out suddenly and then linger on. Other common causes of chronic or ongoing coughs include asthma, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD from emphysema or chronic bronchitis, sinusitis with drainage into the throat, smoking cigarettes or exposure to secondhand smoke, pollutants, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Some medications, such as ACE inhibitors taken to lower blood pressure, can cause chronic coughs in some people.
If your cough lasts more than 2 weeks, see your doctor to find out what may be causing it.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms that accompany your cough depend on what’s causing it:
Your doctor will take a detailed medical history, gathering information about the quality of the cough, how long you have had it, symptoms associated with the cough, etc. Your doctor will also do a thorough physical examination, paying particular attention to your nasal passages, throat, lungs, heart, and legs. Your doctor may order tests such as a sputum culture -- if you have a productive cough that may be bacterial -- an electrocardiogram (EKG), lung function tests, or x-rays of your chest or sinuses.
The goal of treatment is to not only soothe your cough but also treat the underlying cause.
If your doctor suspects a certain illness, your doctor may suggest you try certain medications that can help pinpoint the cause. For example, if your doctor thinks your cough is due to GERD, you may be prescribed medications to reduce your stomach acid. If your cough gets better, then the diagnosis will be correct.
Other medications that may be prescribed to either relieve your cough or treat the underlying problem include cough suppressants, inhalers, antibiotics, antihistamines, or expectorants. Some herbs and supplements may also be helpful in relieving your cough.
Drink plenty of liquids to help thin the mucus in your throat.
If you smoke, stop.
Stay away from secondhand cigarette smoke and airborne irritants in your home or workplace.
If medications are causing your cough, your doctor may change your prescription. If you take an ACE inhibitor or other medication that seems to bring on your cough, do not stop taking it without your doctor's approval.
If you have allergies, you can take steps to avoid the allergic trigger, called an allergen. See also: Allergic Rhinitis
Sucking on cough lozenges or hard candy can help dry, tickling coughs. Never give these to a child under 3 years old because of the risk of choking.
Using a vaporizer or taking a hot shower can create moisture in the air and help soothe a dry throat.
Different drugs, listed below, may be used to either relieve your cough or treat the underlying condition.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, they should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
For cough from respiratory infections, sinusitis, or allergies:
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner.
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of coughs based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Aconitum -- taken within the first 24 hours of a cough that comes on suddenly, particularly if symptoms develop following exposure to cold weather; this remedy is considered most appropriate for individuals with a hoarse, dry cough who complain of dry mouth, thirst, restlessness, and symptoms that worsen in the cold or when the individual is lying on his or her side.
Antimonium tartareicum -- for wet, rattling cough (although the cough is usually too weak to bring up mucus material from the lungs) that is accompanied by extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing; symptoms usually worsen when the person is lying down; this remedy is generally used during the later stages of a cough and is particularly useful for children and the elderly.
Bryonia -- for dry, painful cough that tends to worsen with movement and deep inhalation; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals who are generally thirsty, chilly, and irritable.
Causticum -- for laryngitis and a cough that cannot dislodge mucus in the chest and may cause the individual to leak urine during coughing fits; symptoms tend to improve with sips of cold water but worsen with cold air.
Drosera -- for dry, spasmodic cough accompanied by sharp chest pain and a tickling sensation in the throat that may cause the individual to gag, choke or vomit; the individual may be hoarse or may perspire in the evenings and symptoms may worsen when the individual is lying down.
Ipecacuanha -- for deep, wet cough, often with gagging, nausea, and vomiting; this remedy is especially useful for bronchitis in infants.
Phosphorous -- for chest tightness associated with a variety of coughs, particularly a dry, harsh cough with a persistent tickle in the chest and significant chest pain; symptoms tend to worsen in cold air and when the individual is talking; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals who are often worn out and exhausted, suffer from unnecessary anxiety (even fear of death), and require a lot of reassurance.
Rumex -- for dry, shallow cough that begins with a tickling sensation in the throat or with the inhalation of cold air.
Spongia -- for harsh, barking cough without mucus production; this type of cough is associated with a tickling in the throat or chest; it tends to worsen when the person is lying down and improves when the individual eats or drinks warm liquids; this remedy is often used if a trial of Aconite was not successful.
To successfully treat your cough, it is important to find out the underlying condition that's causing it.
Warnings and Precautions
Call your doctor right away if you have any of the following characateristics to or symptoms accompanying your cough:
Prognosis and Complications
Most causes of cough are very treatable. The prognosis depends on what is causing your cough.
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Review Date: 9/25/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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