As a cold or the flu starts to get better, many people are hit with an annoying last phase: an irritating cough.
Long after a sore throat and nasal congestion goes away, a cough can persist for days and even weeks. Sometimes it's caused by swollen and sensitive airways that haven't healed, even though the virus has been fought off effectively.
That's good to know, but it doesn't make dealing with the problem any easier. Not only does a cough make going back to school or work difficult, it can be impossible to get a good night's sleep when you're hacking away.
However, before you reach for cough medicine, it's important to be sure you know what's causing the problem:
- What's really driving your cough? If it has been more than a week or two since your cold or flu, you should be sure you know what is actually the cause of your problem. If you have an elevated temperature or continue to feel ill, be sure to see your physician to make sure a bacterial infection -- such as pneumonia or a sinus infection -- hasn't settled in.
- Your cough may, in fact, be unrelated to the virus you've just beaten. A cough -- especially not long after a cold or flu -- can also be caused by a range of conditions, including acid reflux, allergies, dry air, dehydration, or overuse of decongestant sprays (which dry out and swell your mucous membranes). Increasing the humidity in your home, especially in your bedroom, and increasing the intake of non-alcoholic fluids may help. If you suspect your problem could be acid reflux, you can try over-the-counter remedies first, while restricting the acid in your diet, and if that doesn't work, should see your doctor. If you're a smoker, quit if you can, and get help if you're struggling with the challenge.
- Centrally-acting cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, are designed to reduce how your body perceives the need to cough. They affect signals in the brain that trigger the cough reflex. But studies show no benefit to these drugs in children or adults. Examples include Robitussin, Vicks Formula 44 and St. Joesph Cough Suppressant. Before taking any of these drugs, check for warnings and potential drug interactions.
- Locally-acting cough suppressants include benzonatate (a non-narcotic capsule that numbs the respiratory passages) and expectorants such as guaifenesin (which thins mucous, making it easier to cough up). Case studies of people with cancer have shown that benzonatate is effective, but that may not be true for others. Guaifenesin, (such as Mucinex, Robitussin, Guiatuss, Q-Tussin, Liqufruta, QTussin, MucaPlex, and Bronchoril) has been shown to thin mucous and help relieve coughs.
- Non-drug options, such as menthol losenges and honey are often helpful. Randomized controlled trials have found that honey was significantly better than placebo at reducing cough symptoms. (But, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, products containing honey should not be used in babies under 1 year of age due to the risk of botulism in infants).
Sleeping with your head on a few big pillows often helps. Keeping your bedroom humidified and drinking a lot of fluids to think your secretions can be useful. If you're not getting much rest at night, try to sneak a nap during the day, since fatigue may make your cough even worse.
Remember, coughs normally can take up to 2 weeks to go away. But see your physician if you're coughing up thick yellow or green mucous, have a fever, night sweats, are coughing up blood, or have chronic heart or lung disease.It's also wise to talk with your pediatrician before treating a child's cough.