Coughing is a natural reaction to an airway irritant, the body's attempt to expel foreign substances, or a symptom indicating an underlying medical condition. A cough is a familiar symptom of a wide range of conditions -- from the common cold to bronchitis. Identifying the type and cause of your cough will help you determine treatment and get you on the fast track to kicking your cough.
Types of coughs
Coughs fall under two categories: productive and nonproductive.
Productive (also known as wet) coughs produce phlegm or mucus that comes up from the lungs or drains down the back of the throat. A wet cough can be a symptom of the common cold, influenza, bronchitis and even pneumonia.
"For symptoms associated with illnesses such as the common cold or flu, coughing helps remove mucus and irritants from your lungs and airways," said Dr. Brian M. Levine, general practitioner and cough specialist from Southern California. "So it's best not to suppress these coughs."
Nonproductive (also known as dry) coughs do not produce phlegm or mucus, and can make your airways, throat or chest sore, causing discomfort and disrupting sleep. This type of cough can be a cold and flu symptom but is also often a result of asthma or allergies.
"A person suffering from asthma generally experiences a dry, non-productive cough," Levine said. "Allergy coughs, due to the constriction of airways by pollutants such as pollen, cigarette smoke or animal dander, are very similar to asthma."
Chronic cough is a cough that lasts longer than six to eight weeks, which can cause physical problems such as damage to the vocal cords, rupture of small blood vessels in the airway, fainting spells, hernias or even broken ribs.
"A long-lasting cough may be the sign of an underlying condition, such as asthma, postnasal drip or gastroesophageal reflux disease," Levine said. "Depending on the cause of the chronic cough, treatment may include antihistamine allergy medications, inhaled asthma medicine, antacids or antibiotics.
"A cough lasting for several weeks can also be an indicator of whooping cough, which is a highly contagious condition characterized by intense coughing that can lead to breathing restrictions, dry heaving, and vomiting. If a cough lasts for more than a few weeks, a physician should be consulted."
"There's a wide selection of over-the-counter treatments available to help ease coughing symptoms," Levine said. "Expectorants, such as guaifenesin, thin the mucus blocking the airways making it easier to cough up, relieving chest congestion. Dry coughs can be treated with a cough suppressant, such as dextromethorphan, which simply lessens the urge to cough promoting comfort and better sleeping.
"I recommend many of the 'store-brand' cough medications at leading retailers and pharmacies, such as Tussin cough syrups and guaifenesin. These products are regulated by the FDA and use comparable active ingredients, but cost significantly less than the brand names."
"If you continue to cough for a prolonged period of time, your respiratory symptoms have worsened, or you have difficulty breathing, I suggest scheduling an appointment with your doctor immediately, so he or she may evaluate you and suggest the best course of treatment for your situation," Levine added.