Now that the holidays are over, the sounds of jingle bells are being replaced with coughs and throat clearing. Some of us can’t get rid of our nagging cough. Let’s figure this out.
Why do we cough?
Coughs are actually a brilliant defense mechanism designed to spew out unwanted irritants that make it to our respiratory tree. Its lining has sensory neurons, that when triggered, tell the brain to induce a mechanism that will help clear the airway. This can, simplistically stated, include a cough but also immune cells mobilized to fight possible infection or heal inflammation. If the act of mechanically coughing irritates the respiratory tree, you may cough more. Likewise, if inflammatory cells produce excess mucous, this could cause a cycle of continued coughing.
What causes a cough?
We’re well aware that infections caused by viruses, bacteria and fungi can cause coughs. But the following need to also be considered.
GERD – reflux disease – the acid can be an irritant to the lungs
Medications – such as ACE inhibitors – causing accumulation of bradykinin which can induce coughing
Pollution – including dust, pollen, and smoke
Chemicals – such as household products who’s aerosol irritates the lung lining
Post nasal drip
Lung conditions – such as asthma, sarcoidosis, emphysema
Heart conditions – such a heart failure
Psychological coughing – such as a tic
What can cure a cough?
We don’t actually “cure” the cough, because remember, it’s a well received defense mechanism. But to control the cough requires us knowing why you’re coughing in the first place.
If one has pneumonia, antibiotics will be needed to kill the bacteria causing the lung infection.
If one has GERD, medications that decrease acid production and secretion may be required.
If its due to allergies, avoidance of the allergen and medications such as antihistamines, or corticosteroids might be utilized.
If its a tumor, then surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy may be necessary.
But for the common viral nagging cough that many of us are dealing with this season, here is what we recommend:
Steam – whether its holding your head over a pot on the stove, humidifier, vaporizer or steam shower, the cough reflex subsides and the moisture helps decrease inflammation.
Stay hydrated – mucous thickens when water content is low, so loosening it up with hydration will make it less irritating. A dry throat doesn’t do us any good either so keep your fluids up.
Honey – studies have found this to be an effective cough suppressant. Add it to some warm water, lemon juice or tea and your throat will be soothed as well. Avoid in children under one year of age.
Cough drops – menthol cough drops work by causing a local anesthetic effect on the back of the throat, temporarily decreasing irritation
Cough suppressants and expectorants – decrease the cough reflex and thin the mucous respectively. One, however, should not self treat using these chronically without having their cough evaluated first.
Other natural remedies (without much scientific evidence) such as Peppermint, Thyme, Eucalyptus, Licorice, Ginger may also provide some relief.
Chocolate – yes chocolate. This yummy treat has theobromine, which can suppress cough, and a study in late 2015 found it to work better than codeine.
What about alcohol and narcotics for cough?
These are not medically recommended, however, many people choose to self-medicate with alcohol and pain pills to control their cough. Here’s why. Older cough syrups used to contain alcohol, as alcohol may dry up mucous, and induce sleep which may lessen the cough. Narcotics decrease respiratory drive and provide analgesia which also decreases the cough reflex. But alcohol is a no no as it can increase acid reflux, worsening cough, and narcotics are a bad idea as they decrease respiratory drive. However, many prescription cough medications do include codeine and are used when the cough is severe.