I am coughing – What do I do?

Battling with a lingering cough that’s giving you sleepless nights and disturbing your work colleagues?

Why am I coughing?

Coughing is a reflex action designed to help clear the throat and upper airways of mucous or foreign irritants. Once the cells lining the air passages become irritated, further coughing may be triggered.

Wondering what’s causing your irritating cough? Well, in many cases that depends on how long you’ve been coughing:

“I started coughing recently.”

These can generally last for less than 3 weeks. Most ‘acute’ coughs are due to:

  • an infection such as flu, the common cold, laryngitis, sinusitis, croup, whooping cough, bronchitis, pneumonia.
  • a non-infective cause such as an allergy (hay-fever), a flare up of asthma or chronic bronchitis/emphysema.

“I’ve been coughing for a long time.”

We think it’s a long time when the cough lasts for longer than 8 weeks. A chronic cough can have a wide variety of causes, usually requiring a visit to a doctor in order to be correctly diagnosed. Some more common causes can include:

  • a long-term respiratory tract infection, like TB
  • uncontrolled asthma
  • uncontrolled allergies and post-nasal drip
  • smoker’s cough, chronic bronchitis/emphysema
  • reflux of stomach acid
  • side effects of certain medications (i.e. ACEi drugs, used to treat high blood pressure and certain heart conditions)
  • heart conditions (i.e. cardiac failure)
  • lung cancer
  • pulmonary embolism (blood clot in lung)
  • lung diseases (i.e. cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis, bronchiectasis, sarcoidosis)
  • aspiration
  • parasitic infections

How do I treat my cough?

So, you’re in the pharmacy looking at a variety of bottles of cough mixture, not knowing which one to choose. Just how do you tackle this irritating cough? Remember, the treatment depends on the underlying cause, the duration and the severity of the cough.

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For an acute cough, chat to your pharmacist and consider:

  • symptomatic over-the-counter cold remedies, expectorants and mucolytics (these help expel mucous and make it thinner)
  • antihistamines and nasal sprays for allergies
  • your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic for a bacterial infection (viral infections do not require antibiotics)
  • in some cases, a cough suppressant may be used, but only on the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.

For a chronic cough, treatment depends on the condition and may Involve:

  • treatment of stomach acid reflux (with an antacid)
  • optimising asthma control
  • discontinuation of medication causing a cough as a side effect (and substitution with an alternative)
  • specific treatment of a specific underlying heart or lung condition