In this article:
- Coughing is a clearing mechanism of the body to prevent the entry of foreign irritants into the lungs. It is also the mechanism that assists the removal of fluids and mucus produced in the lungs in response to illnesses.
- Cough is generally categorized into two types, productive and nonproductive, depending on whether or not mucus (sputum) is expectorated with the cough.
- Expectorants can help to loosen thick sputum, making it easier to cough out. However, expectorants do not treat the underlying infection that causes the cough.
- Cough suppressants can also help in controlling cough. However, they should be taken with caution because suppressing the cough may prevent the sputum from being expectorated. In addition, cough suppressants are usually sedating and can interfere with alertness.
- If the cough does not subside on treatment with expectorants, you should consult a doctor.
What Is a Cough?
Coughing is a reflexive response of the body to an irritation in the throat or airways. Irritants such as mucus and foreign bodies (dust and food particles) need to be cleared from the respiratory tract.
Clearing of the throat and airways is facilitated by coughing. Therefore, like blinking or sneezing, coughing helps in protecting the body.
A cough can be classified as acute, subacute, or chronic:
- Acute cough lasts up to 3 weeks.
- Subacute cough persists for 3-8 weeks.
- Chronic cough continues for more than 8 weeks and is often symptomatic of a serious medical condition.
A persistent cough could be symptomatic of a severe medical complication. It is advised to seek medical help to determine the underlying cause and get treatment.
Chronic cough is often accompanied by these symptoms:
- Presence of blood in the phlegm
- Excessive production of mucus
- Shortness of breath
Factors That Trigger a Cough
A cough can be due to many reasons, and these are the common causes:
- Common cold: Caused by a viral infection, the common cold triggers a cough, as well as the symptoms runny nose, sneezing, congestion, throat pain, and headache.
- Sinus infection: The inflammation of the air cavities in the nasal region due to fluid buildup is known as a sinus infection or sinusitis. Mucus-filled sinuses act as breeding grounds for germs.
The excessive mucus may drain down from the back of the nasal passages and flow to the throat, causing irritation. As a result, coughing occurs. A cough may also be triggered by pressure changes inside the sinuses.
- Allergy: Allergens such as pollen, dust, mold, etc., can cause swelling in the airways. The inflammation and swelling can cause a cough. The allergens may also act as irritants and induce a cough. A chronic dry cough may be caused by allergies such as hay fever.
- Asthma: A cough that is accompanied by wheezing and nasal drainage may indicate asthma. The cough is dry and more severe in the early morning, at night, or during heavy exercise.
- Air pollution: Fumes such as tobacco smoke, smog, vehicular exhaust, and paint fumes can act as irritants and cause a cough.
- Exercise: Exercising while having a cough worsens the symptoms. The problem amplifies when the environment is cold and polluted.
- Cigarette smoke: Cigarettes contain toxins that can induce a chronic cough. Both smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are risk factors for developing a cough.
- Other causes: Serious conditions that can trigger a cough include:
- Chronic lung infections
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Lung cancer
Signs and Symptoms of a Cough
Symptoms generally produced alongside a cough include:
- An itch or “tickle” in the throat
- Chest pain or chest discomfort
A prolonged or chronic cough can result in:
- Sleep deprivation
- Loss of bladder control
- Broken ribs
Preventive Self-Care Measures to Ease a Cough
Here are some tips that can help alleviate your cough:
- Breathe in moisture-rich air. This can be achieved while taking a hot shower.
- Consume adequate amounts of fluids. Staying hydrated helps to relieve your cough.
- Avoid exposure to lung irritants. Irritants such as tobacco smoke can trigger a cough.
Sprays that contain aerosols such as deodorant, hairspray, and cleaning products can cause throat irritation, which can trigger a cough.
- Drink warm liquids. Consuming apple juice or lemon and honey may soothe your throat during a persistent cough.
- Exercise regularly. Light exercises help dilate the airways. Avoid heavy exercises as they may worsen the symptoms of cough.
- Avoid allergens. Exposure to allergy-triggering substances can cause airway inflammation and induce a cough.
- Use cough drops. Cough drops can reduce throat irritation and soothe your cough.
Natural Expectorants That May Help Relieve a Cough
A cough can be treated using cough syrups or expectorants that are available over the counter. Expectorants are essentially substances that help get rid of a cough by clearing your airways of phlegm or mucus.
However, at times, expectorants do not produce the desired results. These drugs can be substituted by natural expectorants that are commonly present in your kitchen.
The following home remedies can help to alleviate your cough naturally, but they may not treat the underlying infection.
1. Saline Water
Salt water works by relieving throat irritation and reducing inflammation in the airways. Gargling or rinsing your mouth with saline water helps loosen the mucus or phlegm, enabling its easy expulsion when coughing. (1)
A study conducted in 2017 compared two treatments for chronic cough caused by inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. Results showed that nasal-pharyngeal irrigation with salt water was more effective than fluticasone propionate nasal spray (FPNS), a nasal steroid. (2)
Salt water acts as a trigger for coughing, which in turn helps you expel the mucus.
How to use:
- Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of lukewarm water.
- Gargle with this salt water solution two to three times a day to obtain effective results.
Honey is rich in antioxidants. The immune-boosting power of honey, along with its antibacterial action, offers quick relief by alleviating the cough and associated symptoms.
A study conducted in 2013 reported that honey helps relieve cough by reducing its severity and incidence. (3)
The use of honey to treat cough in children was supported by another study published in the Canadian Family Physician in 2014. To reduce cough, consumption of 2.5 ml of honey before sleeping is recommended for children older than 1 year. (4)
A 2018 systematic review of randomized controlled trials compared the effect of honey, or the combination of honey and antibiotics, with that of a placebo, no treatment, over-the-counter medications, and honey-based cough syrups. (5)
The study participants were children aged between 1 and 18 years. Results indicated the possible usefulness of honey over no treatment as a measure to provide cough relief. (5)
A number of studies support the use of honey as an expectorant.
How to use:
- Mix 1 tablespoon of raw honey in a glass of tepid water. Consume this mixture multiple times daily to soothe your throat.
Caution: Honey may contain bacteria that can cause infantile botulism. Therefore, children below 1 year of age should not be given honey. (6)
Ginger, a common ingredient in most kitchens, is loaded with anti-inflammatory and antitussive (cough-suppressant) properties that help relieve cough. Ginger can also enhance the immune system and, thus, aid in a quick recovery. (7)
For years, ginger has been utilized for the treatment of disorders such as cough, fever, and bronchial asthma.
An animal study conducted in 2015 showed that ginger could prevent cough induced by citric acid in guinea pigs. Polysaccharides extracted from ginger rhizomes were used for this purpose. (8)
Several compounds isolated from ginger have been found to be potent against rhinoviruses that cause the common cold. This confirms the antiviral properties of ginger.
The shogaols and gingerols in ginger are known to alleviate the symptoms of a cold. They act by suppressing the cough, reducing the body temperature, and giving a slight sedative effect. (9)
Ginger may provide some symptomatic relief from a cough. More research is needed to learn about the exact mechanism as well as the safe and effective dosage of ginger for cough relief.
How to use:
- Prepare a decoction by boiling crushed pieces of ginger in a cup of water. Consume this drink three times a day.
The root of licorice can provide relief from throat irritation. It can also alleviate a cough. Licorice has been widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is utilized to reduce pain, remove phlegm, and alleviate coughing. (10)
The well-known expectorant and cough-suppressant qualities of licorice were demonstrated in a study published in Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry in 2018. Crude extracts and compounds isolated from licorice were used in the study. (11)
However, people with high blood pressure should avoid the use of licorice.
Licorice root has been used for a long time to relieve a cough. However, further large-scale studies need to be conducted to verify its expectorant action.
How to use:
- Steep ½ teaspoon of licorice roots in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes. Drink this tea twice or thrice a day.
- You can also consume licorice candies to reduce throat irritation.
5. Holy Basil
Commonly known as tulsi, holy basil is found in a number of expectorants and cough syrups. Holy basil has been extensively used for the treatment of cough induced by asthma and allergic bronchitis. (12)
It also helps thin phlegm so it can be easily expelled out of the lungs.
Oils obtained from the inflorescence and leaves of holy basil can help in relieving asthma and cough. However, direct studies to further confirm the use of holy basil as an expectorant are required.
How to use:
- Boil 8-10 leaves of holy basil along with 5 cloves in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. Cool the solution and consume it thrice a day.
- Alternatively, add a few drops of holy basil oil to boiling water. Inhale the steam once or twice a day.
Garlic can help in treating respiratory problems and alleviating cough. It acts as an expectorant. (14)
A study published the cough-alleviating properties of garlic in Pharmacognosy Review in 2010. The study also presented other medicinal uses of garlic. (16)
Garlic may be helpful in dealing with respiratory problems. However, better-quality large-scale studies are required to prove its efficacy as an expectorant.
How to use:
- You may also use garlic for steam inhalation.
- For internal consumption, mix crushed garlic and honey. Take this mixture two or three times a day.
Peppermint may improve lung function. (17) Menthol is the chief compound in peppermint that may be responsible for its benefits.
Oils extracted from peppermint help alleviate coughs and reduce the symptoms of throat infection, bronchitis, asthma, and sinusitis. Peppermint oil was also found to be antimicrobial and antispasmodic. (18)
No studies have directly shown the use of peppermint in reducing cough. Hence, more research needs to be conducted to prove its medicinal properties. However, peppermint may be used to provide some relief in cough symptoms.
How to use:
- Use hot water with a drop of peppermint oil for steam inhalation.
- For internal consumption, drink peppermint tea.
Can a cough cause headaches?
Headaches that accompany a cough are generally caused by the same illness causing the cough, but they can also be due to strain from coughing.
What causes nighttime coughing?
Coughing is usually caused by an irritation in the throat or airways. When you lie down at bedtime, you may experience acid reflux or post-nasal drip, which can irritate your throat.
These phenomena are prevented in the daytime by the gravitational force during standing and sitting upright.
Does glycerol help in alleviating cough?
Besides being used as a thickening agent or solvent in cough syrups, glycerol also improves the efficacy of these medications. It acts as a lubricant, humidifying agent, and sweetener. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.
A study conducted in 2017 revealed that a cough syrup containing only glycerol and flavoring agents such as honey or lemon is effective in treating acute cough. (13)
Is zinc useful in the treatment of cough and colds?
Generally, colds are due to an infection by rhinoviruses. Respiratory viruses are present in large numbers in nasal secretions. These viruses spread by nose-blowing, coughing, or sneezing. (20)
The use of zinc sulfate to alleviate colds has been evaluated. Studies showed that using zinc sulfate within a day of onset of symptoms reduced the duration of the cold. (15)
Do herbal cough syrups help in treating cough?
A 2005 study evaluated the effects of herbal cough syrup on cough symptoms. The cough syrup was prepared using a combination of thyme, marshmallow root, ivy leaves, and aniseed.
The study found that the herbal syrup was able to manage cough developing from bronchitis, common cold, and respiratory infections. (19)
When to See a Doctor
Seek medical help if your cough:
- Has no identifiable reason
- Lasts for more than a month
- Is accompanied by shortness of breath or blood in the sputum
What you may ask your doctor:
- Is the cause of my cough serious?
- Is my cough infectious?
- What lifestyle changes should I adopt to relieve my cough?
- Is long-term coughing a sign of a serious underlying condition?
What your doctor may ask you:
- Since how long have you had your cough?
- Do you cough up any mucus or phlegm?
- Do you smoke or use any recreational drugs?
- Have you tried any home treatment for your cough?
Coughing is an involuntary protective reaction of the body against foreign materials. A cough can be due to many reasons, and most coughs last only for a short time.
If the cough is chronic and is accompanied by other symptoms, it can be indicative of an underlying problem.
It is recommended to seek help from a pulmonologist or ENT surgeon when a cough persists for too long. They will perform a thorough evaluation of your medical history to determine the reason behind your cough.