Cough: Clear the airways!

You take very single precaution but still end up with a really bad cough. Here’s what you should do to get your health back on track


Coughing is the body’s way of removing any foreign materials stuck in the lungs and upper airway tract
as they feel irritated. We also need to remember that coughing is only a symptom of a disease and not a disease itself. And we can understand how significant a cough is, when we evaluate it together with all the other symptoms present.

The various coughs

There are two ways of classifying cough. One way is to classify it as acute, sub-acute or chronic depending on how long it lasts. While acute coughs begin suddenly and more often accompany a cold, flu or sinusitis, they usually go away within three weeks. If the cough is said to be sub-acute, it lasts 3 – 8 weeks. And those lasting beyond eight weeks are called chronic coughs.

Another thing your doctor will always ask you when you have a cough is whether it is dry or productive. A dry cough does not produce any secretion, may last several weeks longer than any other symptom and often gets worse at night. Productive coughs, on the other hand, lead to phlegm or sputum coming out and are triggered by mucus that drains down the back of the throat. We may feel like we should keep down our cough but it is the coughing that helps clear out the airways and lungs, so trying to suppress it is actually not a good thing.

What leads to coughing

There are various factors that could lead to coughing

  • An infection, usually bacterial, of the lungs or upper airways
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]; it usually causes a productive cough
  • Common cold, one of the most common causes
  • Hyperacidity, another common but often ignored cause
  • Discharge that drips down the back of the throat
  • Smoking or other forms of tobacco use. Coughing in a smoker could indicate lung damage
  • Viral illnesses
  • A non-productive cough may result from spasms in the bronchial tubes
  • Dust, fumes, chemicals
  • Asthma

Diagnosing what’s wrong

There are various tests used to figure out exactly what’s wrong and identify the cause of your cough.

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • Lung function tests, used to diagnose asthma and check the amount of air your lungs can hold
  • Testing of the mucus you cough up can help identify the cause
  • Bronchoscopy test: If other tests can’t find anything, special scope tests may be considered if we’re looking for rare causes.

How to avoid it

  • Stop smoking and stay away from second-hand smoke
  • If you have seasonal allergies like hay fever, stay indoors as much as possible during changes in season
  • For other allergies, use special covers on your pillows and mattresses or use an air purifier and avoid trigger agents like pets
  • Stay away from irritants like aerosols, sprays or insecticides

Dealing with a cough

  1. Stay hydrated Drinking fluids helps to thin out the mucus that trickles down the back of your throat and irritates it. It also helps to keep the insides of the airway moist.
  2. Try lozenges, hot drinks and other home remedies Gargle with hot water by adding a pinch of salt into it, that helps cure a sore throat. Also, keep drinking hot beverages like coffee, tea or simply lukewarm water.
    Chewing cardamom or a stick of clove, a pinch of turmeric powder mixed with a teaspoon of honey are traditional cures that have proven very useful in treating dry cough.
  3. Take steamy showers and use a humidifier For colds, steam inhalation is the best home remedy. A hot shower can also help a cough by loosening secretions in the nose.
  4. Remove irritants from the air Apart from smoke, avoid perfumes and scented bathroom sprays. Insecticides, aerosols and paints can also irritate the respiratory tract.

Keep all this in mind and you can stop those bouts of incessant coughing from happening in the first place. And even if they do come about, you are now more than equipped to cope with them.

This was first published in the August 2013 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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Prabhakar Shetty
Dr Prabhakar Shetty is a consultant chest physician and has nine years of clinical experience in national and international settings. His special fields of interest include sleep medicine, non-invasive ventilation, airway diseases and bronchoscopy.


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