We’ve all had a cough at some point. Although most coughs are not a sign of something serious, excess coughing is uncomfortable and can make us feel miserable.
There are several different types of cough – which fall broadly into the following categories:
Chesty cough, also known as a wet or ‘productive’ cough
Dry, tickly cough
Paroxysmal (uncontrollable fits of coughing)
All coughs are a sign your body is working extra hard to keep you healthy, so:
- Get plenty of rest when you can and make time for some early nights until you’re fully recovered. Now is not the time to take up a new sport or go on a last-minute holiday
- Eat a good diet with plenty of water, fresh fruit and veg. Avoid alcohol as this will interfere with your immune system. Of course – don’t smoke
Chesty coughs are usually the result of an infection of the upper airways, or a chest infection.
Chesty coughs commonly follow a bout of cold or ‘flu, when the bacteria or viruses that caused these upper respiratory tract infections make their way to the rest of your respiratory system. This type of cough feels like it’s coming from deep within your chest and can be accompanied by a ‘hacking’ sound and mild chest pain.
Chesty coughs are usually (but not always) ‘productive’. This means that in the act of coughing, you produce mucus or phlegm by loosening it from your airways. This either goes down your throat into your stomach, or ends up in your mouth, when you can spit it out into a tissue.
Remember – coughing’s purpose is to help your body expel harmful irritant, whether that is bacteria or an unfamiliar substance. Therefore, chesty and productive coughs should not be resisted. You want to get the bad stuff out!
Chesty coughs usually disappear on their own within three to four weeks. To help alleviate your symptoms and send your chesty cough on its way-
- Sip warm beverages throughout the day. This will help free the mucus that feels lodged in your throat, making it easier to cough it up and eliminate it
- Eat soup for dinner. It’s a gentle food on tender throats and the warmth of the soup will help encourage mucus to loosen
- Make it spicy. Adding hot chilli, or another warming spice such as cumin, coriander or sumac to your dishes will stimulate your sinuses and raise the temperature of your body. This will make your mouth tingle and your nose run – helping to flush out the mucus – and with it, bacteria, dust and other nasties
- If you’re in pain – take paracetamol or ibuprofen. However, if your cough lasts longer than four weeks or is accompanied by chest pain– see your doctor
Dry, tickly coughs are usually caused by inflammation of your respiratory tract, without the presence of mucus.
Much like chesty coughs, dry coughs often follow an upper respiratory infection like colds of ‘flu. They can also be caused by an irritated throat, such as from smoke or pollution, allergies or a related issue such as laryngitis.
- Sip a warm (but not too hot) drink to soothe your inflamed throat. A classic dry cough remedy is honey, lemon and ginger tea – but any clear warm drink will do. This has the added benefit of keeping you hydrated too – which strengthens your immune response
- Don’t spray anything if you can help it – deodorant, hairspray, room fragrance – while you’re recovering from a dry cough. The micro-droplets in the spray will irritate your respiratory system and will likely bring on a coughing fit
- Dry air is a major culprit for irritating sensitive airways. This is a particular problem during colder months, as we tend to crank up the indoor heating. This leaves the air in our offices and homes sapped of moisture, causing our throats and sinuses to dry out
Remedy this by replacing the moisture in the air with a humidifier. These can be bought relatively inexpensively – but beware! You must keep your humidifier clean by washing it at least once per week with an antibacterial wash (e.g. dish soap), otherwise it can become a breeding ground for bacteria.
A similar room-humidifying effect can be achieved by placing bowls of water or damp plants near your radiators or by drying wet laundry on them.
Paroxysmal coughs are violent and significant coughing fits.
They are less common than the other types of cough and can be caused by a significant irritant that has found its way into your airways. Other causes include asthma, whooping cough, gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and bronchitis. These are serious conditions and should be treated and monitored under the care of a doctor.
Keep external irritants to a minimum. That means no spraying of any cosmetics or household cleaning products, and no breathing in any smoke until your coughing episodes have stopped entirely. This includes second-hand smoke, bonfires and smoke from a barbeque. Even things like everyday traffic fumes can irritate your respiratory system, so consider an anti-pollution mask that filters out dust and irritants.
You should make an appointment with your doctor if you cough up any blood, ever struggle to breathe because you’re coughing so much or vomit from too much coughing.
Last updated: 29 April 2020