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Relieving A Cough

Topic Overview

Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and mucus out of your lungs and upper airway passages. Coughs are often useful, and you should not try to stop them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to make breathing difficult, cause vomiting, or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more comfortable when you have a cough.

  • Drink fluids to keep from getting dehydrated. Water may help loosen mucus and soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs may respond to honey in hot water, tea, or lemon juice. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.
  • Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.
  • Try a cough drop to soothe an irritated throat. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are not any better than inexpensive candy-flavored ones or hard candy. Most cough drops have no effect on the cough-producing mechanism.
  • Quit smoking. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Avoid exposure to inhaled irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants, or wear a face mask that is appropriate for the exposure. There are many kinds of face masks. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which types will give you the most benefit.

There is not enough evidence to determine whether cough medicines work.1 But some people may find them useful. Avoid cold remedies that combine medicines to treat many symptoms. It is generally better to treat each symptom separately. There are two kinds of cough medicines: expectorants and suppressants.

  • Expectorants may make it easier to cough up mucus when you have a productive cough.
    • Use an expectorant if you have a cough that produces thick mucus and you are having difficulty coughing up the mucus.
    • Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin.
  • Suppressants may control or suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you awake.
    • Use cough suppressants wisely. Don't suppress a productive cough too much, unless it is keeping you from getting enough rest. Coughing is useful, because it brings up mucus from the lungs and helps to prevent bacterial infections.
    • If you have a dry, hacking cough that does not bring anything up, ask your doctor about an effective cough suppressant medicine.
    • Look for suppressant medicines containing dextromethorphan.

If you have sore muscles from coughing a lot, have someone massage your chest and back muscles a few times each day. Massage can reduce soreness and help you rest and relax better.

Cough medicine precautions

  • Cough medicines may cause drowsiness.
  • Cough medicines can cause problems for people who have other health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate. Cough preparations may also interact with other medicines, such as sedatives and certain antidepressants. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose one.
  • Use them with caution if you give them to an older adult or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
  • Read the label so you know what the ingredients are. Some cough medicines contain a large percentage of alcohol. Others contain codeine. There are many choices. Ask your pharmacist to advise you.
  • Do not take someone else's prescription cough medicine.
  • Cough and cold medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Before you use them, check the label. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight.

For more information about medicine safety, see the topics Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.

References

Citations

  1. Wark P (2011). Bronchitis, search date March 2010. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Robert L. Cowie, MB, FCP(SA), MD, MSc, MFOM - Pulmonology
Last Revised July 10, 2012

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