Did you know…
- A sore throat generall takes ONE week to settle.
- The common cold takes about ONE AND A HALF to TWO weeks to settle.
- Sinusitis (runny nose, pain behind nose and cheeks) takes around TWO AND A HALF weeks to settle.
- A cough takes around THREE weeks to settle.
So, if you have a cough for less than three weeks you generally do not need to see a doctor. It will settle in its own time. Most adults experience episodes of coughing between two and five times a year, and about one in five people suffer from coughs during the winter months. Although coughing often impairs people’s quality of life, it is rarely due to serious causes and usually gets better by itself.
Why do we cough?
Cough is a reflex mechanism to clear your breathing passages of mucus or other irritants, and is rarely a symptom of anything more serious than a cold. Most coughs clear up within three weeks, and a GP’s advice should be sought for those that do not. It is estimated that one in five people will suffer from a cold-related cough during the winter months. The excess mucus/phlegm that results from the viral infection may be too sticky to be coughed up easily and that’s why sometimes it is so frustrating and annoying.
Acute cough is most commonly caused by a viral upper respiratory tract infection due to a cold. A chronic cough is common in smokers and can sometimes suggest an underlying lung problem, but may also be caused by conditions outside the lung, such as heartburn (gastric reflux). Cough may also result from taking certain drugs (check the label), asthma, and environmental factors (dusty workplaces, for example).
When should I see a doctor?
- you feel more unwell than you’d expect
- the cough started after you’ve choked on something
- you are coughing up blood for no obvious reason
- your cough is not getting better within 3-4 weeks
- you have chest or shoulder pain in addition to your cough
- you are finding it difficult to breathe
- you are losing weight for no apparent reason over a period of six weeks or more.
- your voice becomes hoarse for longer than three weeks, and the hoarseness persists after the cough has settled
- you notice new neck lumps or swellings or above your collarbones
What can I do to help the cough settle?
Most of the time, you will not need any medicine because our bodies are very well designed and can get rid of coughs and colds within 3 weeks. There are things you can do to help your body’s natural process.
- Paracetamol – Paracetamol can help with relieving symptoms that may accompany a cough, such as a sore throat, fevers, and not feeling well
- Fluids – Drink at least 6 to 9 glasses of water in a day and suck lozenges. Sucking lozenges or boiled sweets stop you from coughing!
- Try not to cough – although this may sound easier said than done, you may be able to cough less often by trying not to cough, because our desire to cough can sometimes be influenced by our brain
- Stop smoking – Smoking is one of the commonest reasons for a cough lingering on. Stopping smoking or at least smoking less not only improves your cough, but also benefits your health in other ways (reducing the risk of a heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer, for example).
- Home remedies – Try simple home remedies such as ‘honey and lemon’ – just add freshly squeezed juice from one lemon and a teaspoon of honey to a mug of hot water.
- Cough mixtures – There is little evidence to say whether over the counter medicines are effective for relieving cough symptoms. Despite the lack of research evidence, you may still get some subjective benefit from over the counter preparations – speak to your pharmacist rather than your GP.
Are there any medicines that might help?
Remember, most of the time, coughs will settle down on there own and you do not need to see a doctor or buy medicines. But if you want to try something then please read on. There are two types of cough: the productive cough (sometimes described as ‘chesty’ or ‘loose’), in which the person tries to cough up the excess phlegm in order to clear their breathing, and the non-productive cough, sometimes referred to as dry or ticklish. Understanding the type of cough leads to appropriate treatment.
If you have a phlegmy productive cough….
- A group of medicines called Expectorants may help to loosen the sticky mucus, making it easier to cough up. The person will still cough, but in so doing will be able to expel the phlegm that is causing it. Guaifenesin is an example of an expectorant – ask your local pharmcist more about this.
If you have a tickly dry cough…
- A group of drugs called Demulcents work by coating the throat and thereby reducing the tickly stimulus to cough. These include syrups and products with glycerine.
- Cough suppressants serve to alleviate symptoms of the tickly, dry cough, providing relief from sleepless nights. The ingredients include codeine, pholcodine and dextromethorphan, suppressing the cough reflex.
- Ask your local pharmacist more about these.
Sometimes cough mixtures have the following ingredients added to help with additional symptoms
- Analgaesics to relieve pain and bring down temperature
- Decongestants to constrict swollen blood vessels in the nasal passages
- Antihistimines (such as diphenhydramine) to reduce secretions, sneezing and itching. When the antihistamine is sedating, as is the case with diphenhydramine, sleeplessness is relieved.
Information on this page adapted from http://www.selfcareforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/7-Cough.pdf