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What your cough means and how to get rid of it

December 14th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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Is yours chesty, dry, chronic or productive? Coughs are one of the most common winter health complaints, so here’s how to identify yours and treat it, plus when to take your cough to the doctor’s…

Whether it’s come alone or with its snivelling sidekicks the cold and flu, a cough can be one of the most irritating, exhausting winter health issues. A constant cough can keep you up at night, sabotage your exercise plans and make everything from public speaking to partying nigh on impossible. As coughs come in many genres (drippy mucus cough anyone?), here’s how to diagnose yours and treat it accordingly, from a pharmacist who sees this kind of thing day in, day out during this time of the year especially. Enter Lloyds Pharmacist Pareena Patel with her catalogue of coughs, starting with the two main players:

“Coughing is a reflex to help remove irritants from your airway and make breathing easier. Generally speaking, coughs can be split into two types - dry or productive. Productive coughs bring up phlegm and may cause a ‘heavy’ feeling in the chest, while dry coughs don’t produce mucus and may feel tickly in the throat. Productive and dry coughs require different treatments as they display different symptoms”.

Onto the nitty gritty…

The dry, itchy cough

The symptoms: “Dry coughs are characterised by a tickle at the back of the throat. They are also known as non-productive coughs, as they do not produce any mucus. As well as the persistent urge to cough, your throat may also feel sore when swallowing due to inflammation.”

Why you’ve got it: “Dry coughs usually occur as a result of throat irritation. It is likely to be caused by an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold.”

How to treat it: “These types of coughs can sometimes linger for days or weeks, but usually get better by themselves. A cough that’s a symptom of the common cold and will usually clear up by itself within three weeks. If it lasts for longer, make an appointment with your GP.

“You can help manage the symptoms of a dry, tickly cough by gargling with warm salt water to reduce irritation. Honey is also proven to help relieve a tickly throat and adding a teaspoon with some lemon juice to warm water can help to alleviate symptoms.

“A cough medicine with a suppressant can help dry or tickly coughs by blocking the cough reflex. Lozenges can also help soothe the throat by providing lubrication and some such as Strepsils Triple Action Lozenges, £4.59 for 24, provide some short-term pain relief too. Painkillers can be helpful if you experience coughing fits that give you muscle ache or headaches, which may also allow you to sleep better and rest up so that you recover quicker.”

The chronic cough

The symptoms: One splutter leads to 45 more, basically. “Troublesome coughs (also referred to as chronic coughs) are often described as dry and non-productive and may result in coughing fits. Again, if your cough lasts more than three weeks, you should seek advice from your GP.”

Why you’ve got it: “Troublesome coughs can be caused by allergies, smoking and dehydration. They may also be a result of chronic bronchitis or asthma. Many chronic dry coughs can be triggered by air pollutants, so bear this in mind if you’re going into a smoggy city. If you know that you suffer from allergies, make a note of your triggers and try to avoid them. You should also avoid smoking and being in smoky rooms or around those who smoke as this may cause or aggravate a chronic dry cough.”

How to treat it: “Manage symptoms of a chronic cough by coughing as softly as possible to avoid throat soreness and sipping cool water or cordial. If your cough is due to asthma or COPD it is recommended that you visit your pharmacist or GP for advice on how to manage your symptoms. LloydsPharmacy Mentholated Bronchial Balsam, £4.99 for 300ml, provides relief for sore throats, coughs, colds and catarrh too - it's cooling and contains menthol, aniseed oil and capsicum tincture to help to ease inflammation. Always consult your GP or pharmacist before use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.”

The mucus cough

The symptoms: You’ll probably know about them already, but just in case you need confirmation of your phlegm cough status:

“Mucus coughs (also referred to as chesty coughs) are coughs that cause the chest to feel heavy and tight and cause us to cough up sticky mucus to clear the airways. If you’re coughing up yellow or green mucus, this could be a sign of a chest infection.

“A mucus or chesty cough will bring up mucus or phlegm from the lungs and airways, sometimes into the mouth or dripping down the back of the throat. It is a jelly-like liquid which protects you from infection. When mucus builds-up in the lower airways, such as the lungs, it can also make the chest feel heavy or tight. Chesty and mucus coughs are a very common symptom of a cold or the flu and usually clear up within three weeks. If you’re coughing up yellow or green mucus, this could be a sign of a chest infection.”

Why you’ve got it: “Mucus coughs are caused by excessive mucus in the chest which is produced to help to clear the airways. They may occur as a result of a lower respiratory tract infection such as acute bronchitis.”

How to treat it: “You can help to treat mucus coughs by taking a steamy shower or bath which will help to loosen mucus and relieve congestion.”

Even better, you can add a natural decongestant to your bath to help you to breathe easier. Eucalyptus is as good an airway clarifier as any - try putting a capful of Dr Bronner Eucalyptus Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, £11.69 for 472ml into warm bath water to ease a stuffy nose and tight throat, or add a little to your laundry load for easy breathing by way of your pillow at nighttime. You can even use it to clean your makeup brushes so it’s got a lot going on, coughing aside, and if you’re still not convinced, Meghan Markle is a fan, which is telling of her practical, budget conscious tastes in toiletries (she’s also got a bargain Nivea body lotion in her bathroom).

Other than steaming the mucus away, Pareena has other mucus cough melting tips up her sleeve:

“Before you go to sleep it may help if you put some extra pillows under your head to create an incline, as this will stop mucus from irritating the throat. Sleeping with a humidifier on to help make the air moist can also help to relieve symptoms. Drinking warm herbal tea just before bed will help to loosen mucus and clear airways as well - a high fluid intake in general will keep mucus thin.”

“Cough medicine with an expectorant can thin and loosen mucus so that it is easier to cough up and breathe, which can be especially helpful for stubborn chesty coughs. Consult your doctor before use if you are on any medication, if you are undergoing medical tests, if you have asthma or if you have an intolerance to some sugars (many contain glucose).

“If your cough produces yellow or green phlegm or you have symptoms of breathlessness, fever, rapid heartbeat or chest pain, you could have a chest infection. While these aren’t usually serious, you should see your GP if symptoms do not improve.”

The ‘everything at once’ cough

The symptoms: “You’ve got a cough, a cold and a sore throat all at once. Coughs, colds and sore throats are symptoms associated with mild viral infections, such as the common cold. While usually treatable at home, if you experience a cough for more than three weeks or are finding it difficult to breathe, are losing weight or have a swollen neck, you should seek advice from your GP.”

Why you’ve got it: “A cough can spread contagious bacteria or viruses via tiny droplets of phlegm or mucus which fly through the air after coughing. These can then be breathed in by other people or picked up from surfaces. The common cold and flu virus can contaminate surfaces such as countertops, doorknobs, tables and keyboards for up to 24 hours.

“Infections can also be spread by coughing or sneezing into hands then touching a surface or another person. If you pick up the virus and touch your eyes, nose or mouth it can be transmitted into your body. When you have a cold or flu, you can be contagious for 24 hours before you get any symptoms and then for around five to seven days afterwards. A number of different viruses can cause the symptoms of a common cold but they cannot be treated with antibiotics as these are only effective for bacterial infections.

“If a cough is caused by a chest infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, then you could experience symptoms such as breathlessness too. Most chest infections get better by themselves, but you should see your GP if you experience chest pain or difficulty breathing, cough up blood, feel confused, disorientated or drowsy or your symptoms do not improve. Certain kinds of chest infections can be caused by bacteria and in these cases your doctor may give you antibiotics, but not always.”

How to treat it: “To help alleviate symptoms of a cough, cold and sore throat, make sure that you are staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water and have plenty of rest and sleep. Gargling with salt water can also help to soothe throat irritation. LloydsPharmacy Triple Action Cough, 200ml, £3.99 also provides soothing and warming relief for coughs, colds and sore throats. It won’t get rid of the virus completely though - while uncomfortable, these symptoms are your body’s natural response to help clear the airways and expel the excess mucus from the body. Sometimes you have to wait it out, but if your symptoms aren’t clearing up after three weeks, call your doctor.”

The cough you should never ignore

“A cough is usually nothing to worry about. It can be annoying, interrupt daily activities and sleep and in some cases, the physical strain of coughing fits can make you feel tired, dizzy and give you headaches, but it shouldn’t trouble you for long.

“A common cold or flu can sometimes lead to a chest infection caused by either a virus or bacteria, and while most are mild and get better on their own, in some cases, they can be more serious. People most at-risk are babies and very young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with a weakened immune system.

“One cough that you should be particularly vigilant about is whooping cough. It’s caused by a specific bacterial infection and causes uncontrolled fits of coughing and sometimes a ‘whoop’ sound after a sharp intake of breath – hence its name. Whooping coughs are highly contagious if you come into close contact with someone with the infection, especially if that contact is within six days after they were infected. While the initial symptoms are very similar to those of the common cold with a runny nose, watery eyes and sore throat, the intense coughing can last for three months or more.

“Although anyone can get it even if they’ve had it before, it’s much more common in children and babies under six months old and it can make them very ill. There is a vaccine available for whooping cough so be sure to speak to your pharmacist or GP to for more information.”

Follow Lloyds Pharmacy on Twitter @LloydsPharmacy and Anna @AnnaMaryHunter

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