Coughs: Causes & Relief

How to stop coughing

What is a cough?

A cough is a reflex designed to clear the throat and breathing passages from mucus, phlegm or other irritants. Mucus is the thin secretions from your nose and sinuses, while phlegm is thicker and produced from your throat and lungs.

Coughing involves three phases:

  1. Inhalation — breathing in
  2. Compression — increased pressure in the throat or lungs
  3. Expiration — explosive airflow with coughing sound

Coughing can be voluntary (intentional), or involuntary (when the body’s reflex causes coughing), and coughs can be:

  • Acute – lasting less than three weeks
  • sub-acute – lasting between three and eight weeks, or
  • chronic – lasting eight weeks in adults or four weeks in children1

Types of coughs

Chesty cough : Also known as a wet productive cough, this one typically brings up mucus. Your chest may feel heavy, or like there’s something stuck or dripping in the back of your throat.

Dry cough: Also known as a non-productive cough, this doesn’t bring up mucus. Instead, your throat may feel tickly which triggers your coughing reflex, leading to ‘hacking’ coughs.

Croup cough: This is caused by a viral infection that usually affects children five years or under. The virus causes the upper airway to become irritated and swollen, making it hard to breathe and leads to the characteristic ‘barking’ cough.

What causes coughing?

Coughs can be caused by different things.

  • Clearing your throat — Coughing is a way to clear your throat of mucus or foreign irritants such as smoke or dust.
  • Viral or bacterial infections — Viruses and bacteria can cause infections in the respiratory tracts that lead to coughing. Upper respiratory tract infections that cause coughing include cold, flu and laryngitis. Examples of lower respiratory tract infections are bronchitis, whooping cough and pneumonia.
  • Asthma — Inflammation and narrowing inside the lungs associated with asthma can lead to coughing.
  • Smoking — Smoking leads to a chronic cough called ‘smoker’s cough’, which is especially irritating in the morning.

How do I know if my cough is serious?

Most of the time, coughs caused by viruses clear up on their own without any treatment. However, there may be some types of coughs that are more serious, and may need treatment.

Swelling and inflammation in the bronchial tubes (the air passages that link the mouth and nose with the lungs), can cause coughing. Other symptoms include wheezing, difficulty breathing, and difficulty clearing heavy mucus or phlegm.

This is when the larynx (voice box) becomes swollen and inflamed. Characteristics may include a dry or sore throat, and a voice that is hoarse, gravelly or very quiet. Persistent throat clearing and coughing is also a symptom.

Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever presents with similar symptoms to a cold, including sneezing, runny nose, coughing and pressure in the sinuses. Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to an airborne substance, usually pollen.

This is an infection of the lungs and airways caused by bacteria, and is highly infectious. It is characterised by a severe hacking cough, followed by an intake of breath that sounds like a high-pitched ‘whoop’. Young babies are most at risk as their airways can be damaged by severe bouts of coughing, and sometimes they may be too young to have been vaccinated against the disease.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by a new, highly-infectious virus. Symptoms range from a mild cough to pneumonia, with some experiencing flu-like symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat and fatigue. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, phone the Australian Government 24 hour COVID-19 Hotline on 1800 020 080.

When to see a doctor

Coughs often disappear by themselves. However, there are some instances where it is wise to seek medical advice. If you experience any of the following, you should visit your doctor:

  • a cough that has lasted longer than eight weeks (adult) or three weeks (child)
  • coughing up thick, greenish-yellow phlegm, or blood
  • wheezing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • a cough that is accompanied by:
    • chest pain
    • fainting
    • fever
    • ankle swelling
    • weight loss
  • a cough that’s interfering with daily activities and your sleep

How to treat coughs

Sometimes persistent coughing can be annoying, so over-the-counter (OTC) medications designed for coughs may help. As there are many different types available, it’s important to seek the advice of your pharmacist before taking one.

  • Cough syrups — The type of cough syrup you use will depend upon the type of cough you have. Chesty cough medicines contain ingredients that help break down mucus and make it easier for you to cough up phlegm. Dry cough medicines contain a suppressant, designed to reduce coughing. Some preparations contain combination ingredients such as decongestants and antihistamines.
  • Throat lozenges — Lozenges may provide temporary relief from a cough. Some contain painkillers or even a local anaesthetic, while others may contain antibacterial ingredients, suppressants, or ingredients that act as a decongestant. Speak to your TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist about which one may be right for you.

Other remedies you can try include:

  • drinking hot water mixed with lemon and honey, to help soothe a sore throat
  • eating soft food that is easier to swallow
  • staying hydrated, particularly with liquids at room-temperature may help to alleviate coughing
  • gargling with salt water may help reduce phlegm and mucus
  • breathing aromatic steam (boiled water with eucalyptus2 or similar) may help clear your head and relieve congestion

Speak to your TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist about your cough and accompanying symptoms, so they can recommend products that may be right for you.

How TerryWhite Chemmart can help

General advice only – this information should not replace the information provided to you by your health care professional. If symptoms are severe or persist, please speak to your health care professional. Information current as of date of publishing.