What’s happening? When you cough, voluntarily or involuntarily, a deep breath of air enters your airways, causing your vocal chords (which are normally open, except when you are speaking) to slam shut, which leads to pressure building up under them. They then open quickly, and a huge gust of air accompanied by sound comes out. The force of a cough will bring secretions, such as mucous, out of your airway.
Why is your body doing it? A cough is like the bouncer of your airway. “The lungs and surrounding area should be sterile, so the goal is to keep it perfectly clear down there,” says Tylor. When your body suspects there is an infection or other unwanted intruder, it coughs to keep the area neat and clean, free of various irritants, secretions, and infective agents.
Doctors like to talk about two kinds of coughs: wet and dry. A wet, or productive, cough is one in which your body is attempting to eliminate secretions that come from viral or bacterial infections or even acid reflux. Wet coughs bring up mucous. A dry, or nonproductive, cough is just what it sounds like—nothing comes up but air. Environmental irritants (such as perfume or strong odors) and asthma are two common causes of dry coughs.
What should you do? The first thing you should do is what every preschooler learns: Cough into your elbow or sleeve or into a tissue, then promptly dispose of the latter and thoroughly wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This keeps your germs (and whatever illness you may be harboring) from infecting others.
To treat your cough, Tylor recommends:
- Staying well hydrated (bump up the juice and water, cut back on the caffeine) to thin your mucous.
- Trying over-the-counter cough lozenges to soothe the tickle in your throat.
- Using saline drops or spray if postnasal drip is contributing to the cough.
- Trying an over-the-counter expectorant.
Tylor also cautions against giving cough-suppressant medications to children under the age of 6, since they are not necessarily effective and have been associated with a rapid heart rate and seizures in small children. Instead, she advises, focus on hydration: Try a bedside humidifier, use saline drops, and elevate the head of the child’s bed slightly (a folded blanket under the mattress works well) to help the mucous drain properly.
Some coughs will need medical attention. Call your doctor if:
- You are coughing up blood.
- You are having difficulty breathing.
- You are also experiencing a high fever or persistent body aches.
- The cough lasts for more than two weeks.