cough

Calm a Constant Cough

A persistent cough is nagging, uncomfortable and frustrating. It's downright embarrassing, too, especially if your coughing attack occurs during a meeting, at the movies or other public place.

But how do you calm an uncontrollable cough that lasts weeks and sometimes months?

"If you experience a cough, most of the time it shouldn't be a reason to panic," says Michelle Festa, MD, a Virtua primary care physician. "Most coughs will resolve themselves in two weeks or less. However, if the cough lasts more than a few weeks or even months, you should see a doctor."

In addition to the lengthy duration of a cough, Dr. Festa adds you should visit a doctor if a cough is associated with the following:

  • Fever that lasts for a few days or more
  • Shortness of breath
  • Discolored mucus (yellow or green)
  • Blood in the mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

The most common causes for a persistent cough include:

  • Cold/flu
  • Acid reflux
  • Smoking
  • Allergies
  • Ace inhibitors (medicine used to control high blood pressure)
  • Asthma
  • Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object

"The biggest worry is if a serious infection is involved," says Dr. Festa. "A virus that results in a cold or flu is not necessarily serious. But if you have a cough that lasts weeks and months, then something could be wrong. A doctor would need to run tests for any chronic cough to rule out pneumonia, emphysema, tuberculosis or cancer."

Treating a cough

An effective treatment plan for an annoying, constant cough depends on the cause, but here are some recommendations to calm a typical cough:

  • Over-the-counter medication
    Cough medicine that contains a suppressant called dextromethorphan may provide relief from coughs. It works by decreasing activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing. Dextromethorphan will not be effective for a cough that is caused by smoking, asthma or emphysema.
  • Hydration
    Drink plenty of water while you are sick, especially if there is a fever, to prevent dehydration and to loosen mucus. Chicken soup may also help.
  • Cough drops
    Similar to suppressants, cough drops can help alleviate symptoms. Menthol compounds in cough drops, for example, act as local anesthetic agents to temporarily numb the nerves in an irritated throat.
  • Neti pot
    Used for thousands of years in ayurvedic medicine, a neti pot is a container designed to rinse your nasal cavity with a mild saline solution. You place the spout in one of your nostrils (with your head tilted over the sink) and gently pour in the solution. As you pour, the solution will flow through your nasal cavity and out the other nostril. Repeat on the other side. The Neti pot helps to alleviate sinus and allergy problems that may be causing your cough.
  • Zinc
    Dr. Festa says taking zinc supplements at the onset of a cold can help alleviate symptoms, which generally include coughing. "Zinc can help shorten the duration and the severity of a cold and its symptoms if started immediately," she says.

Updated June 6, 2016

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