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Quick Question – How can I stop coughing?

Last week’s question covered why and how we cough, now let’s consider how to stop coughing. What can you do to ease a cough when your ribs are aching and your sleep is disturbed?

As we discovered, coughing is a reflex designed to protect us and it’s controlled by the coughing centre in the brain which receives messages from receptors in our airways. Because this happens automatically, without conscious thought, it makes it difficult to control.

Find out what’s at the route of your cough?

The key is to work out why you’re coughing. We usually associate coughing with respiratory infections such as colds, bronchitis or pneumonia but there are many other reasons people cough. Working out the cause helps to find the best way to make it stop. Here are some common causes of coughs which aren’t respiratory infections:

Smoking – A major cause of a long term cough.

Acid reflux – Stomach acids sometimes sneak past the sphincter that seals off the stomach. This acid can travel upwards and irritate your throat, this commonly happens when you’re lying down at night.

Asthma – A frequent cause of recurrent cough. There may or may not not be any associated shortness of breath or wheeze but there may well be a trigger such as an allergy or exercise.

Allergy – Rather than infection, a cough may be triggered by a reaction to a trigger such as pollen or dust.

Post-nasal drip – Often the sinuses over produce mucous and it drips down the back of the throat, irritating it and meaning that you need to recurrently clear your throat and cough.

Medications – Coughing can be a side effect of some medications including ace-inhibitors which are used for high blood pressure and heart conditions.

Other medical conditions – Coughing can sometimes be as a result of a heart problem such as heart failure, it might be called a ‘cardiac cough’. Other medical conditions that cause coughing include pulmonary embolism, vocal cord problems and occasionally cancer.

Currently you’ll have to assume that any new cough could be coronavirus, isolate yourself and use the NHS 111 online service. Aside from Covid-19, any cough that goes on for longer than three weeks, is associated with weight loss, night sweats or shortness of breath or brings up blood stained phlegm, needs checking out urgently by a doctor.

How to make the cough stop!

Once you’ve got to the route cause of your cough then treatment for the appropriate condition will help to resolve the hacking. Each of the above conditions is treated differently and your GP will help you find the cause and advise you on next steps.

Let’s focus on the cough from respiratory infections.

Well there’s good news and bad! The bad news is that you can’t simply cure the cough. It will continue whilst you have the infection and may sometimes carry on for a few weeks after it has cleared. It is after all trying to help you clear mucous debris and germs out of your airways. But, the good news is that there are things you can do to ease a cough and make life more pleasant for yourself.

Try these simple things to reduce your cough:

  • Change your posture. Lying down is sure to make things worse so let gravity help you and prop yourself up with pillows at night, sit in a comfy chair during the day and keep pottering about.
  • Sip fluids. Frequently drinking will help to reduce a cough. Hot drinks can be most effective. My favourite is hot honey and lemon; you can inhale the steam, the honey soothes a sore throat and the lemon gives you a dose of Vitamin C.
  • Check your environment. Often changing from a warm indoor room to the chilly outdoors or vice versa can trigger a bout of coughing. Sometimes a humid atmosphere such as inhaling steam can help.
  • Suck a sweet. You can buy cough sweets but any normal hard boiled sweet that takes a while to dissolve will help you create saliva to swallow which moistens your throat in the same way that drinking does.
  • Try a cough medicine. Although there are many on sale, there’s actually little evidence to show that cough syrups and medications do more than simply drinking fluids regularly. Have a chat with your pharmacist to see what might be suitable for you but don’t expect miracles.

There’s a lack of evidence for using herbal remedies and other supplements. If you find one that works for you then that’s great, there’s just not enough high quality medical studies to be able to make definite recommendations.

A recurrent cough can be extremely wearing and tiring, especially if it’s disturbing your sleep. Try and stay positive and know that it will stop eventually.

Featured image: Steffen Frank for Pixabay


There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health.Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

www.drjulietmcgrattan.com

Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person.  So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional. 

2 Comments

  1. My husband and I are big believers in sipping drinks to control coughing, although it can be very annoying having someone keep shouting ‘Have a drink!’ at you.
    In my family, we also have the nervous cough. My brother, sister and one of my sons are all habitual coughers.

    • Dr Juliet McGrattan says

      Having a drink of water is a cure all in our house! Nervous cough – great point, not sure I could cope

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