A cough is not an illness in itself, but a symptom. Although it can be irritating and often embarrassing, it is the body’s natural response to any foreign body, congestion or irritation in the lungs or throat. The irritation may be due to things like air pollution or cigarette smoke, but in a great many cases it turns out to be the result of a cold or flu virus.
Sometimes, however, coughing signals a more serious disorder in the respiratory tract. So it is extremely important to seek medical advice for any cough that lasts for longer than a few days or if there are streaks of blood in any mucus you cough up. Coughing up green sputum probably signifies a bacterial infection.
Coughs can be treated with cough suppressants or expectorants. Cough suppressants – as the name suggests -are medicines that suppress the symptom, the cough itself, without tackling the underlying cause. They reduce the frequency and intensity of a cough by acting on the part of the brain that controls the coughing reflex, or at the site of irritation in the throat. These may help if you have a dry, hacking cough. Dry coughs occur when there is irritation but little phlegm in the larynx at the top of the windpipe, or in the pharynx, the cavern between the mouth and nose at the top and the oesophagus (gullet) and trachea (windpipe) below. This irritation stimulates the cough reflex which is the body’s natural response.
Expectorants relieve chesty coughs, the type you often get as a result of a cold or flu. These medicines claim to loosen the ‘debris’ or phlegm in order to make it easier to cough up.
There is certainly a bewildering range of cough medicines available in any pharmacy. Some simply contain soothing substances such as honey and glycerine to act on the throat’s surface, together with pleasant-tasting flavourings and tiny doses of antiseptics. Some are sugar-free so that they can be taken by those suffering from diabetes, and will not cause tooth decay. Others are specially designed for children and some are even animal fat-free! Still others contain decongestants to help clear nasal passages or antihistamines to help ease allergy-like symptoms like the nasal congestion, sneezing and watery eyes that may accompany a cough.
Some cough medicines can cause drowsiness. If a medicine makes you drowsy do not drive or operate machinery. And avoid alcoholic drink. Children being given cough medicines which may cause drowsiness should not be left on their own.
If you do have an irritating cough and want something to relieve it, describe your cough to your pharmacist and take his or her advice. You don’t want to buy something that may make your cough worse. As always, you should tell your pharmacist if you are taking any other medication, have a medical condition or are pregnant or think you may be.
Despite the enormous number of cough remedies availa- ble, there is disagreement as to their value. They may give temporary relief to a ticWy throat and taste pleasant, even soothing, but they may or may not be any more effective than a honey drink you have made yourself or inhaling steam to ease congestion. Doctors are sometimes reluctant to prescribe cough suppressants because coughing is a protective reflex; repeated bouts of coughing can be distressing, however, so soothing medication may be needed. When patients are well in themselves but the troublesome cough is keeping them awake at night and to no good purpose, then I’m in favour of cough suppressants. One instance when they can really be useful is when a person is over the worst of whooping cough, but the cough is persisting after the infection has past – as it sometimes can, for weeks afterwards.
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