To effectively treat a cough, the cause must first be identified and the expected duration estimated. Giving a cough mixture for a few days might help if a viral cold is the cause, but giving a cough mixture isn’t going to help in the case of lung cancer.
Fortunately, the vast majority of acute coughs that occur as a result of a common cold resolve by themselves in a few days. Rarely, they may last a few weeks.
These coughs are transient, but can be frustrating. If they don’t settle within a week after your cold or flu has cleared, it’s worth seeing a doctor as complications can occur, even with a common cold. Complications are rare but may result in a prolonged cough, especially if you’re bedridden for a few days or have other medical conditions such as heart failure or a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung). If these are all excluded, the post-viral cough just needs time to improve on its own.
Most people with colds or the flu head to the nearest chemist for an over-the-counter cough mixture that may provide some symptomatic relief, help you to cough up some mucus, and relieve a dry, scratchy throat. But these medicines aren’t effective in shortening the duration of the cough. It provides symptomatic relief, but often won’t treat the cause of the cough.
The best you can do is to give your body a chance to fight off the virus that’s causing the cough. This would include bed rest, not exercising strenuously, 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, while some swear by honey, ginger or turmeric. There’s no real proof that any of these are truly effective. But if they make you feel better, these remedies can do little harm.
Remember that antibiotics and cold medicines can’t cure colds. In the case of a serious acute cough, which is life-disrupting, your doctor can prescribe cough suppressants and medicines that would loosen mucus. These would be more effective than over-the-counter cough mixtures.
Treatment for chronic cough
Accurately diagnosing the cause of a cough is essential – just treating the symptom (cough), and not the underlying disease, is a recipe for disaster. Treatment varies widely and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating 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 some of the most common recommendations and treatments for the various causes of a chronic cough, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
- Medicines that control acid production
- Not eating large meals – especially at night
- Raising the head of your bed
Sinus infection, post-nasal drip, allergies
- Possibly antibiotics (if you have a bacterial infection)
- Avoidance of specific allergens or irritants
- Nasal sprays
- Inhaled corticosteroids
- Avoidance of irritants such as dust or known allergens
- Quitting smoking if you currently smoke
Avoidance of irritants such as pollution and cigarette smoke
- Oral antibiotics
- Switching to another type of medication for hypertension (high blood pressure)
Lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, tuberculosis (TB)
A chronic cough is a symptom of a serious underlying condition in all of these cases. Your doctor will decide on appropriate treatment for the condition based on your state of health, medical history, age as well as the progress of the condition and the medical protocols for its treatment.
The so-called “smoker’s cough” will only gradually disappear if you quit smoking.