When there is an irritant in the throat, the nervous system will send an alert to the brain. In turn, the brain will let the muscles in the chest and abdomen know to contract and exhaust air—this is known as a cough.
When a person coughs, the body is protecting itself from irritants such as mucus, smoke and allergens—dust, mold and pollen being the most common.
While most coughs are simply a result of an irritant in the throat, they can be symptomatic of an illness or other condition. In order to determine the cause of the cough, it is important to note its characteristics.
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What to do for a cough
Although coughs may all seem the same, each one can be characterized differently. The descriptions below can help you determine whether you or your child needs to see a provider for a particular cough.
What triggers the cough? Does it tend to happen at night, after eating or while exercising?
How long has the cough lasted? Is it less than two weeks or more than eight weeks?
- Side effects
Are there any other symptoms like vomiting or difficulty sleeping?
Does the cough feel wet or dry? Does it feel like hacking?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how debilitating is the cough? Does it get in the way of day-to-day activities or keep the person home from work or school?
Please note: If the cough is caused by something blocking the airway, it’s important that you call 911 and begin performing the Heimlich maneuver as quickly as possible—you can even do it on yourself. Signs of choking include panic, bluish coloring of the skin, inability to speak, an ineffective cough and odd breathing noises.
What causes a dry cough?
If the cough sounds raspy or has a whistling sound, it may be caused by bronchiolitis —an infection of the tiny airways of the lungs.
Bronchiolitis is often confused with the common cold since symptoms are so similar, but unlike a cold, bronchiolitis usually progresses to coughing, wheezing (which makes a raspy noise) and sometimes trouble breathing.
Typically, bronchiolitis lasts two to three weeks and will get better on its own. Because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help it heal more quickly.
You can treat the cough at home with over-the-counter cough medicine that includes an expectorant and with pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin. Also be sure to drink a lot of water and get plenty of rest.
What's a wet cough?
If the cough feels wet and is accompanied by a runny nose, fatigue and postnasal drip, it may be caused by a cold, the flu, asthma, acute bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Typically, a wet cough—also known as a productive cough—sounds this way because the body is bringing mucus up out of the respiratory system—this includes the throat, nose, airways and lungs. It can feel like there is something stuck in the back of the throat or in the chest.
A wet cough will usually get better on its own. Most are considered minor and will last less than three weeks, but in some instances, a wet cough can be chronic and last more than eight weeks in adults or four weeks in children.
Over-the-counter medicine, like cough suppressants, expectorants and lozenges help relieve the symptoms, as does drinking plenty of fluids and taking steamy showers or using a humidifier.
What does a dry cough mean?
When it feels like there is a tickle in the back of the throat, it is considered a dry cough. Often caused by an upper respiratory infection like a cold or the flu, this type of cough occurs when there is an irritation in the respiratory tract but there isn’t enough excess mucus to cough it up. These coughs can be the most frustrating type because it is often hard to control and can result in long coughing fits.
After a cold or flu has passed, the dry cough can linger for several weeks. Treat it at home with over-the-counter cough suppressants or lozenges. Since dry airways can make this type of cough worse, the steam from long showers or baths and humidifiers can help, as well as drinking warm beverages like tea.
What is croup cough?
A cough that most commonly affects children under the age of 5 is one caused by croup, an infection that irritates the upper airways and windpipe. This cough is easy to recognize with the telltale “barking” sound that results when air from a cough passes over swollen vocal cords.
Although a cough caused by croup can be very scary for children and their parents, it usually passes on its own in three to five days without any professional treatment.
When caring for a child with croup, skip the cold medications. These aren’t recommended for children younger than age 2, and nonprescription cough medicines won’t help croup. If the child has a fever, try acetaminophen (Tylenol).
You can help make breathing easier by using a humidifier or sitting with the child in a bathroom filled with steam from a hot shower, holding or placing the child in a comfortable upright position, encouraging rest and offering fluids—for babies, breast milk or formula, and for older children, soup or frozen fruit pops.
When should you see a provider for a cough?
Most of the time a child’s cough will get better on its own without medical treatment. However, if your child has any of the following symptoms, it’s time to see a provider:
- A cough that lasts for longer than three weeks
- Discoloration of the skin (either bluish or pale)
- Wheezing or whooping in addition to coughing
- Dehydration and inability to swallow food
- Extreme fatigue
- A fever about 102 degrees Fahrenheit (or any fever in a child that is under 2 months of age)
For yourself or other adult, it’s advisable to seek medical care if the cough persists, if the person suffering from the cough is older or has existing health complications, or if he or she is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Severe dehydration
- Wheezing or whooping in addition to coughing
- A cough that last longer than eight weeks
- Stomach acid reflux or heartburn that occurs daily
- Blood when coughing
- A fever that is higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
- Inability to walk or talk due to weakness
If you or your child needs treatment for a cough, consider visiting your local CareNow®.
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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.