The Type of Cough Medicine You Take Could Make a Big Difference in Finding Relief

The Type of Cough Medicine You Take Could Make a Big Difference in Finding Relief

There comes a time each year — it could mid-winter in the brittle cold, when colds and flu are making their rounds, or in the middle of spring, when pollen fills the air — when you just can't stop coughing. It's annoying for you and everyone around you, as that tickle comes up when you're in a meeting, stuffed like a sardine on the train or trying to get some much-needed sleep.

Now, as much as we hate to cough, there is a legit reason our body has this strange reflex. "Coughing is a response to irritation, inflammation, or infection in the lungs and airway," says Chantel Strachan, M.D., a primary care physician at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "It is how our bodies literally try to push unwanted germs and irritants out of the body."

Coughing is most often associated with respiratory infections — like the common cold or flu, bronchitis and more serious infections, including COVID-19. But it can also be due to acid reflux, allergies and asthma, as well as unexpected side effects of some medication, according to Dr. Strachan.

The type of cough you have is a clue to what's causing it: A wet cough (the type that brings up phlegm or mucus) is often a sign of a lower respiratory infection. A dry cough, on the other hand, is commonly associated with irritated or inflamed upper airways, says Glen B. Chun, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine and clinical director of Mount Sinai's National Jewish Respiratory Institute. Treatment for wet coughs is often targeted towards suppressing the cough entirely, whereas for dry coughs it may be more focused on soothing the associated sore throat, he explains.

Sometimes it can seem that your cough is going to last forever, but thankfully, there are many strategies you can try for improving your symptoms, including a good old cough drop.

Here are the best ways to get rid of your cough, fast.

Take Cough Medicine

An OTC cough medicine from your local drugstore is often your first resource for treating a cough. But don't just grab any bottle off the shelf: There are three types of cough medicine, according to Dr. Chun. An expectorant helps expel the mucus in your body by thinning it; suppressants, on the other hand, work by subduing cough reflexes in the brain. Some cough medicines contain a combination formula, which utilizes both forms.

Other commonly used ingredients include decongestants, which help ease a stuffy nose, and antihistamines for allergies or runny noses, as well as painkillers such as acetaminophen.

"Generally, these medications are only meant to be used for a short period of time and should not be used for more than one week," Dr. Chun advises. For those with pre-existing health conditions, it's crucial that you consult your primary care doctor before taking new cough medicine, as it may interact with existing prescriptions or negatively impact a pre-existing condition.

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Stay Hydrated

Your grandma was correct: Drinking plenty of fluids is important when you're sick. Not only does it keep you from getting dehydrated, drinking more liquid may also aid your immune system in fighting off viral infections by increasing blood flow to the affected area of the body, Dr. Strachan explains.

Additionally, drinking a lot of water helps thin out mucus and soothes discomfort associated with a sore throat, Dr. Chun says.

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Sip Warm Tea

In addition to keeping a water bottle on hand to stay hydrated, make sure you're always well stocked up on soothing teas; a warm cup can soothe your throat and boost home healing efforts.

"Warm drinks, teas, or broths thin mucus and reduce throat irritation," Dr. Chun says. "Some teas have also been found to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that provide some relief." A good one to try is ginger tea, which is an especially great option as ginger has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that will bolster your immune system.

RELATED: 10 Soothing Teas That Can Fight Cold Symptoms When You're Sick

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Soothe with Honey

While you're fixing that cuppa tea, go ahead and mix in some honey, which is an age-old remedy to soothe a sore throat and cough. Honey has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties — and evidence suggests that it can indeed help with a cough.

In fact, a 2021 review of studies published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine suggests that honey may actually be "superior to usual care" for improving active symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including cough frequency and cough severity.

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Gargle With Salt Water

Salt water gargles are a simple, safe and low-cost home remedy that can help soothe a scratchy throat, which might be triggering your cough. "Gargling with salt water helps kill bacteria, loosen mucus and ease pain and discomfort," Dr. Chun adds.

To make an effective saltwater gargle, dissolve 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of salt in an 8oz glass of warm water. Swish the solution around in your mouth and gargle at the back of your throat for about 30 seconds, then spit it out. It may not taste particularly yummy, but it can make your throat feel a lot better.

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Use a Humidifier

You may be able to blame your cough on the dry air circulating throughout your home. According to the Cleveland Clinic, breathing in dry air is linked to common respiratory problems, including coughing — using a humidifier can help relieve these congestion issues. These handy devices (click here for Good Housekeeping's top-rated models) release water vapor or steam to increase moisture levels in the air, which can help thin and clear up mucus, explains Dr. Strachan.

RELATED: 6 Best Humidifiers of 2022, According to Home Experts

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Take a Hot Bath or Shower

While a humidifier is great, you can get the same effect by simply stepping into your bathroom and turning on the shower. Breathing in the steam from a hot shower or bath can help ease cough and other congestion symptoms. Plus, an added bonus: It's great for relaxing and de-stressing after a long day.

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Grab a Cough Drop

For instant relief from a chest-wracking cough, suck on a cough drop or lozenge. The most common ingredient in cough drops is menthol, which is naturally found in the mint plant and provides a cooling sensation almost instantly.

If you're not a fan of menthol, other flavors can help, too. "[Cough drops] increase saliva, which helps to lubricate the throat," Dr. Strachan adds. "This limits inflammation, and ultimately resolves cough."

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Use a Neti Pot

If your cough is also accompanied by sinus problems and post-nasal drip — meaning, mucus trickles down your throat towards your mouth, triggering coughing — consider using a nasal irrigation device.

Neti pots use salt water solutions to treat allergies, sinus problems and nasty colds. "Neti pots are a great way to clean out any debris or mucus in the nasal sinus passages," Dr. Chun says. But the FDA cautions that you should only use distilled, sterile or previously boiled water in your neti to avoid the risk of serious infection.

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Avoid Smoking and Other Irritants

Needless to say, smoking isn't good for anything—least of all your lungs. Airborne irritants from cigarette smoke that enter your respiratory system can trigger a cough reflex. "Eliminating environmental respiratory irritants such as cigarette smoking, dust, and pollens, can also greatly improve cough," Dr. Chun says.

Besides avoiding smoking, you can also use an air purifier to help clear the air of other common irritants like dust and pollen.

RELATED: These 6 Common Allergens and Irritants Might Be Lurking in Your Home

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See a Doctor

If your cough is lingering and none of these strategies are giving you any relief, check in with your health care provider, especially if your symptoms are severe, not responding to over-the-counter treatments or persists for more than 4 weeks. "After a typical respiratory viral infection, cough often resolves within 4 weeks, but can linger for up to 8 weeks," says Dr. Strachen. "The cough should gradually be improving during this time."

Dr. Chun also advises seeking medical attention if your cough is accompanied by shortness of breath, bloody mucus, chest pain, confusion, high fever, fainting, night sweats or unexplained weight loss. "These are signs this may be more than just a common cold," he says.

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