5 Ways To Stop A Nagging Cough

If you’re hacking away, there are things you can do besides cover your mouth.
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Holiday shopping. Holiday parties. Airplanes. It seems like wherever you go this time of year, you’re bound to find someone coughing on you. Ick. Next thing you know, you’re coughing, too. How to stop your nagging cough? We asked the experts.

“Coughing is one of the most common reasons people visit their health care provider,” says Rachel Taliercio, D.O, a pulmonologist with the Respiratory Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. And there are a variety of diseases that cause people to cough. How you treat that cough depends on what’s causing it in the first place.

That said, there are some things that will calm a cough—any cough—long enough for you and your doctor to get to the root of the problem.

Fix #1: Warm air

Whether you take a shower, sit in a sauna, inhale fumes from a warm washcloth, or plug in the vaporizer (assuming it’s been properly cleaned), you’ll find some relief from moisturizing your airways. “There’s evidence that when airways are moist, it’s less irritating and can help you to cough less,” Dr. Taliercio said. 

Fix #2: Honey

Honey can soothe irritated mucous membranes that stimulate your cough reflex. This natural remedy became a more respected and recommended cough treatment after a study in theArchives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that kids who took two teaspoons of honey 30 minutes before bed slept better and coughed less than when they took cough medicine (or took nothing.) That’s a medicine you can swallow.

Fix #3: Cough drops or lozenges

Doing so will ease the irritation in your throat and temporarily halt the hacking, Dr. Taliercio said. Some experts suggest that lozenges, cough drops, and hard candies help because they lubricate your throat and make you swallow, a reflex that naturally suppresses coughs. 

Fix #4: A shot of brandy

The alcohol in brandy (or a sip or two of wine) often soothes irritated membranes and calms a cough, said Steven Meixler, M.D., a pulmonologist and co-medical director of the Westchester Medical Group in White Plains, NY. “I don’t want to encourage irresponsible drinking, but a small amount—just a sip or two—can have the effect of calming a cough.” Of course, you should be careful about mixing alcohol with any other cold medication you might already be taking. If you are unsure, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

Fix #5: Nasal irrigation

It might seem like a waste of time to be thinking about your nose when you’re coughing your head off, but your nose may just hold the key to coughing cessation. Since post-nasal drip is one of the prime causes of coughing, treating your nasal passages by using a Neti Pot or some other nasal irrigation system can reduce the amount of drip down the back of your throat and consequently the amount of irritation of your membranes. The result: You’ll cough less. 

Causes of chronic coughing

Coughing on its own is not a bad thing, Dr. Meixler said. It can clear mucus from your system and anything else in your throat that is not supposed to be there. Doctors consider a cough chronic when it lasts for eight weeks or more. When it’s been hanging around for one to three weeks, it’s called acute, he added.

Coughs arise for several reasons—mostly from a cold. But there are other causes you might not have considered...

After your cold has gone, you may have residual post-nasal drip. Or you may have a post-infectious cough, which occurs after a cold when your airways remain irritated and inflamed. If you cough mostly when you lay down to go to sleep at night, that may be post-nasal drip. A decongestant or intranasal steroids (like Flonase or Nasacort) can usually help calm the situation, Dr. Taliercio said.

 Your stomach contents can come back up your esophagus high enough to touch your vocal cords, which will then lead to a protective reflex—a cough, said Ryan Madanick, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and attending physician at the Center for Esophageal Diseases and Swallowing. They can also get into the trachea, bronchi, and lungs, and you might not feel the typical heartburn associated with reflux, but you could develop a chronic, nagging cough. If this is your diagnosis (after a careful examination of your symptoms), your doctor may suggest a higher or more frequent dose of a class of medication called a proton pump inhibitor (such as Prilosec, Nexium, or Prevacid). You may need to take it for as long as 3 months before the cough resolves, Dr. Madanick said.

Doctors have also been prescribing gabapentin (Neurontin) for treatment of chronic cough. Patients also take it for a period of time before slowly weaning off of it once their cough goes away. 

We most often think of asthma as a condition that comes with shortness of breath and wheezing. But it can sometimes present as simply a cough. When this occurs, a pulmonologist will prescribe inhaled steroids, which can quiet the cough and give you relief, Dr. Meixler said.

Some medications taken for high blood pressure cause coughing. ACE Inhibitors (Zestril or Monpril for example) are sometimes associated with coughing. If your doctor discerns that your medication is making you cough, he or she will prescribe another type of blood pressure medication. 

Call your doctor immediately if:

  • You are coughing up blood or discolored sputum
  • Your cough is accompanied by a high fever
  • You have other symptoms like wheezing or shortness of breath
  • You just don’t seem to be getting any better

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