The worst part of a cold for many is an annoyingly persistent cough — especially when that tickle in your throat crops up at the worst times, like during a work presentation or as you’re tossing and turning in bed. It’s enough to make you desperately search for ways to get rid of a cough — overnight if possible.
But as it turns out, there’s a really important reason why we cough, and it’s meant to help you get better. “Coughing is a reflex that our body uses in response to irritation, inflammation or infection in the lungs and airway,” says Chantel Strachan, M.D., a primary care physician at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “It is how our bodies literally try to push unwanted germs and irritants out of the body.”
Coughing is most associated with respiratory infections — like the common cold or flu, bronchitis and more serious infections, including COVID-19. But it can also be due to acid reflux, allergies, asthma as well as unexpected side effects of some medication, according to Dr. Strachan. While a wet cough (a productive cough that brings up phlegm or mucus) is often a sign of a lower respiratory infection, a dry cough is commonly associated with irritated or inflamed upper airways, says Glen B. Chun, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine and clinical director of Mount Sinai’s National Jewish Respiratory Institute. Treatment for wet coughs is often targeted towards suppressing the cough entirely, whereas for dry coughs it may be more focused on soothing the associated sore throat, he explains.
So what exactly can you do to treat an annoyingly persistent cough? Thankfully, there are a number of effective strategies you can try for improving your cough symptoms — and you may already have the solution in your home. From using over-the-counter medication to drinking a cup of tea, here are 11 easy ways to get rid of your cough.
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Take Cough Medicine
Over-the-counter medicine from your pharmacy is often your first resource when it comes to treating a cough. But not all medicine is the same — there are three distinct types of cough medicine for you to consider, according to Dr. Chun. The first is an expectorant, which helps expel the mucus in your body by thinning it; suppressants, on the other hand, subdue cough reflexes in the brain. There’s also cough medicine that uses a combination formula, which utilizes both forms.
Other commonly used ingredients include decongestants, which help ease a stuffy nose, and antihistamines for allergies or runny noses, as well as painkillers such as acetaminophen.
“Generally, these medications are only meant to be used for a short period of time and should not be used for more than 1 week,” Dr. Chun advises. For those with pre-existing health conditions, it’s crucial that you consult your primary care doctor before taking new cough medicine, as they may interact with existing prescriptions or negatively impact a pre-existing condition.
There’s a good reason why drinking lots of fluids is so important when you’re sick. Not only does it keep you from getting dehydrated, drinking more liquid may also aid your immune system in fighting off viral infections. How, exactly? “Increased fluids help to fight infection by increasing blood flow to the affected area of the body,” Dr. Strachan explains.
Additionally, drinking a lot of water helps thin out mucus and soothes discomfort associated with a sore throat, Dr. Chun says.
Soothe with Honey
Want an extra boost in your tea or hot water? Try mixing in some honey — an age-old remedy to soothe a sore throat and cough. According to officials at the Mayo Clinic, honey has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties — and evidence suggests that it can indeed help with a cough.
In fact, a 2021 review of studies published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine suggests that honey may actually be “superior to usual care” for improving active symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including cough frequency and cough severity.
Gargle With Salt Water
It’s not just another old wives’ tale: Salt water gargles are a simple, safe and low-cost home remedy that can help soothe a scratchy throat, which might be triggering your cough. “Gargling with salt water helps kill bacteria, loosen mucus and ease pain and discomfort,” Dr. Chun adds.
To make an effective saltwater gargle, Mayo Clinic experts recommend dissolving 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of salt in an 8oz glass of warm water. You’ll want to swish the solution around in your mouth and gargle at the back of your throat for about 30 seconds, then spit it out.
Use a Humidifier
Is the air in your home too dry? According to materials published by the Cleveland Clinic, breathing in dry air is linked to common respiratory problems, including coughing — using a humidifier can help relieve these congestion issues. These handy devices release water vapor or steam to increase moisture levels in the air, which can help thin and clear up mucus, explains Dr. Strachan.
Take a Hot Bath or Shower
If you don’t have a humidifier on hand at the moment, just hop in the shower. In a similar way that using a humidifier can help open up nasal passages and loosen up your mucus, breathing in the steam and humid air from a hot shower or steam bath can help ease cough and other congestion symptoms. Plus, an added bonus: It’s great for relaxing and de-stressing after a long day.
Grab a Cough Drop
Looking for instant relief for a chest-wracking cough? Sucking on a cough drop or lozenge may help throughout the day. The most common ingredient in cough drops is menthol, a substance that is naturally found in the mint plant, and works to provides a cooling sensation almost instantly.
Other flavors can work, too. “[Cough drops] increase saliva, which helps to lubricate the throat,” Dr. Strachan adds. “This limits inflammation, and ultimately resolves cough.”
Use a Neti Pot
If your cough is also accompanied by sinus problems and post-nasal drip — meaning, mucus trickles down your throat towards your mouth, triggering coughing — you should reach for a nasal irrigation device.
Neti pots are popular, as they use salt water solutions to treat allergies, sinus problems and nasty colds. “Neti pots are a great way to clean out any debris or mucus in the nasal sinus passages,” Dr. Chun says.
To use a neti pot properly, officials at the Mayo Clinic advise tilting your head sideways and placing the spout of the neti pot in the upper nostril. Then, gently pour the saltwater solution into your upper nostril, which will allow the liquid to drain through your other nostril. Repeat on the other side for good measure.
Avoid Smoking and Other Irritants
Airborne irritants that enter your respiratory system can trigger a cough reflex — which means that smoking isn’t a good idea if you’re trying to get rid of a cough. “Eliminating environmental respiratory irritants such as cigarette smoking, dust, and pollens, can also greatly improve cough,” Dr. Chun says.
Besides avoiding smoking, you can also use an air purifier to help clear the air of other common irritants like dust and pollen.
See a Doctor
If you’re finding that your cough isn’t improving with these home remedies, it may be time to seek medical attention.
Dr. Strachan advises seeing a doctor if your symptoms are severe, not responding to over-the-counter treatments or persists for more than 4 weeks. “After a typical respiratory viral infection, cough often resolves within 4 weeks, but can linger for up to 8 weeks,” she says. “The cough should gradually be improving during this time.”
Dr. Chun also advises seeking medical attention if your cough is associated with symptoms like shortness of breath, bloody mucus, chest pain, confusion, high fever, fainting, night sweats or unexplained weight loss. “These are signs that signify this may be more than just a common cold,” he shares.
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