Updated 31 March 2015

Treating a cough

The way a cough is treated depends largely on the underlying cause.


To effectively treat a cough, the cause of the cough must be known.

Associated symptoms

Fortunately the vast majority of acute coughs which are the result of a cold or the flu will resolve by themselves in a few weeks and are transient and minor, according to the journal American Family Physician. But the journal does warn that in a small percentage of cases the cough can be a symptom of congestive heart failure, pneumonia and a blood clot in the lungs, which needs urgent medical attention. It is therefore important not to approach a cough only as a cough, but to take into account associated symptoms that may be experienced.

Most people with colds or the flu head to the nearest chemist for OTC cough mixtures that may provide symptomatic relief, help you to cough up some mucus, and relieve a dry scratchy throat, but it must be remembered that these are not effective in shortening the duration of the cough. It provides symptomatic relief but often won’t attend to the cause of the cough.

The best people can do is to give their bodies a chance to fight off the virus causing the cough. This would include bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding exposure to irritants such as smoke or dust, or using a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

Many people take cough drops, some swear by honey, ginger or turmeric – there is no real proof that any of these are truly effective. But if they make you feel better, these remedies can do no harm.

It must be remembered that antibiotics and cold medicines cannot cure colds, as we are reminded by the National Institutes of Health. In cases of serious acute coughs, which are life-disrupting, doctors can prescribe cough suppressants and medicines that would loosen mucus, and these would be more effective than OTC medicines.

Treatment for chronic coughs

Accurately diagnosing the cause of a cough is essential. Treatment varies widely and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for this symptom. It can be a frustrating process for both patient and doctor to find a treatment that alleviates chronic coughing.

The table below outlines the most common recommendations and treatments according to the National Institutes of Health for the various causes of a chronic cough.

treating cough

Read more:

What is a cough?

Causes of a cough

Diagnosing a cough

Image: Cough syrup from Shutterstock


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Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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