Why Do We Cough?

Coughing can make you miserable. Arthur Tilley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Coughs are annoying and bothersome. Some of us deal with them frequently, others only when we get a respiratory illness such as a cold or the flu.

But why do we cough? What causes that irritation in the throat and the uncontrollable urge to cough? We cough when the nerve endings in our airways are irritated. This irritation is often caused by mucus that is produced when we get sick with respiratory infections.

It can also be caused by chronic medical conditions, medications or environmental irritants like smoke or allergens.

Most of us want to make the cough stop as soon as it starts. However, believe it or not, coughing is actually helpful most of the time. It is a reflex that helps clear the airways so we can breathe more easily.

Although coughs are annoying and no one wants to deal with them, they do serve a purpose and in most cases - if they are caused by a temporary illness - shouldn't be suppressed. Coughs caused by chronic conditions such as asthma, COPD, lung cancer and heart failure may be more difficult to treat or control. Talk to your health care provider about the best way to care for yourself and your treatment options if you are living with a chronic medical condition that causes a cough.

Treatment Options

Getting relief from your cough is a priority when it's interfering with your sleep and daily life.

There are several things you can do and various medications you can try.

Cough Medications

If you decide to try a cough medication, you will likely be looking at one of two options. They work in different ways and have varying degrees of efficacy.

Cough Suppressants

Widely promoted as relief to your annoying cough, suppressants are used frequently but are unfortunately often ineffective.

Over the counter products abound and there are some prescription cough suppressants available as well. Although the type that require a prescription from your health care provider are more effective, they often cause side effects.

In addition, suppressing a cough can actually make illnesses worse. If you have mucus in your airways, the body's reflex to cough helps to expel the mucus. Suppressing that reflex means the mucus may settle into your lungs which can lead to pneumonia.

If you are considering a prescription cough suppressant, read this first: The Problem With Prescription Cough Suppressants.

Expectorants

Expectorants can help with coughs not by suppressing them but by making it easier to get rid of the mucus you are dealing with. They thin the mucus, helping it drain and making it easier to expel when you cough or blow your nose.

Non Medication Options

If you aren't looking for medication relief from your cough or you want to try additional options, there are a few other things you can do that may help relieve your cough.

Humidify the Air

Using a humidifier can add moisture to the air, which soothes irritated airways.

Drink Extra Fluids

Drinking extra clear liquids such as water, soup and juice (avoid caffeine and alcohol) can also help loosen mucus and soothe irritation in the throat.

 

Sources:

"What Causes Cough?" Explore Cough 01 Oct 10. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 18 Jun 14.

"How Is Cough Treated?" Explore Cough 01 Oct 10. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 19 Jun 14.

"Living With Cough" Explore Cough 01 Oct 10. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 19 Jun 14.

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