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Coughs, Age 12 and Older (cont.)

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Coughing is your body's way of removing foreign substances and mucus from your lungs and upper airway passagesClick here to see an illustration.. Productive coughs are often useful, and you should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more comfortable when you have a cough.

Home treatment for adults

  • Prevent dehydration. Fluids may help thin secretions and soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs respond to honey in hot water, tea, or lemon juice.
  • Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.
  • Try a cough drop to soothe an irritated throat. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are no better than inexpensive candy-flavored drops or hard candy. Most cough drops have no effect on the cough-producing process.
  • Quit smoking and do not use other forms of tobacco, especially while you have a cough. For more information on quitting smoking, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Avoid exposure to inhaled irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants, or wear a face mask that is appropriate for the exposure. Many kinds of face masks are available. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to determine which type of face mask will provide you with the most benefit.
  • If you suspect problems with stomach acid may be contributing to your cough, see the topic Heartburn.

Cough preparations may help your cough. Avoid cold remedies that combine medicines to treat many symptoms. It is generally better to treat each symptom separately. There are two kinds of cough medicines: expectorants and suppressants.

  • Expectorants help thin the mucus and make it easier to cough mucus up when you have a productive cough.
    • Use an expectorant if you have a cough that produces thick mucus and you are having trouble coughing the mucus up. Don't depend entirely on an expectorant to thin the mucus. Drink plenty of water also.
    • Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin, such as Robitussin, Mucinex, and Vicks 44E.
  • Suppressants control or suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you awake.
    • Use cough suppressants wisely. Don't suppress a productive cough too much, unless it is keeping you from getting enough rest. Coughing is useful because it brings up mucus from the lungs and helps prevent bacterial infections. People with asthma and other lung diseases need to cough.
    • If you have a dry, hacking cough, ask your doctor about an effective cough suppressant medicine.
    • Look for suppressant medicines containing dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin-DM or Vicks Dry Hacking Cough. Studies show that over-the-counter cough medicines do not work very well. And some of these medicines can cause problems if you use too much of them. It is important to use medicines correctly and to keep them out of the reach of children to prevent accidental use.

Cough preparation precautions

  • Cough preparations can cause problems for people with other health problems, such as asthma, heart failure, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate. Cough preparations may also interact with other medicines, such as sedatives and certain antidepressants. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose one.
  • Use cough preparations with caution if you are older than 60 or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
  • Read the label so you know what you are taking. Some cough preparations contain a large percentage of alcohol. Others contain codeine. There are many choices. Ask your pharmacist to advise you.
  • Do not take someone else's prescription cough medicine.

For more information on home treatment of respiratory problems, see the Home Treatment section of the topic Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Other symptoms develop, such as moderate to severe chest wall pain with coughing, trouble breathing, a productive cough, or fever.
  • You start coughing up blood.
  • A cough lasts longer than 2 weeks without other respiratory symptoms.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
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