Cough Symptoms, Types, Treatment and Prevention

If you’ve experienced coughs from time to time – and who hasn’t – you would probably agree that they are always uncomfortable and often interfere with day-to-day life. A cough can be a very uncomfortable symptom to deal with when you have a cold or flu. Medicines like DayQuil and NyQuil Severe can help. But before you can treat it, you must understand what a cough is, exactly, and how wet and dry cough differ.

What is a cough?

A cough is a protective, natural reflex intended to keep the airway clear.

The urge to cough is a built-in reflex in your central nervous system, similar to the reflex to sneeze, swallow or yawn. The control centers for the cough reflex are in the same part of your brain where many functions related to survival are found1, showing just how important it is for your health and safety to have the ability to cough.

A cough can be triggered by both non-infectious causes, such as smoke, dust, and pet dander, or by infectious agents, like bacteria and viruses. A cough can also expel food that went down the wrong way, or a foreign object from getting into your lungs. It can be voluntary or involuntary as a reflex.

When the nerve endings in your airways become irritated by something you breathe in from the environment—like pollen or dust— the cough reflex kicks in. In this instance coughing helps you to expel the irritant.

A cough may also develop as a result of a viral infection. This type of cough can be either voluntary or involuntary, to help your lungs get rid of mucus that can accumulate from the immune response fighting the infection.

A chronic cough can be a sign of more serious health conditions. If you think you may have a chronic cough, please talk to your healthcare provider.

Types and Symptoms of Cough

Coughs come about for different reasons, and each may sound or feel different. There are two main types of cough from a cold or flu: wet cough and dry cough.

A cough that expels mucus (also known as phlegm) from your airways is called a productive, wet, or chesty cough because it serves a function. A cough that does not produce mucus and serves no useful purpose is called a non-productive or dry cough. It can also disrupt much-needed sleep, leaving you exhausted.

What’s Causing Your Cough

  • Wet Cough: A wet cough happens when your respiratory system produces mucus to help flush out an irritant or cold or flu pathogen from your airways and lungs.
  • Chesty Cough: Some may refer to a wet cough as a chesty cough. Though similar, they are not technically the same. A chesty cough can be productive or non-productive, or alternate between—some coughs will expel mucus, followed by dry coughs due to inflamed and irritated airways that don’t bring up mucus. Chesty cough is triggered by excessive mucus in the lungs and lower airways, and you may have difficulty expectorating (a fancy word for coughing up) thick mucus to clear the airway passage.
  • Dry Cough: Dry coughs typically happen when airways are inflamed or irritated. This makes them sensitive, so the threshold to trigger a cough is lowered. You may experience dry cough in the first few days of a respiratory infection as your body tries to clear the pathogen from your airways.2
No matter the trigger of your cough—irritated air passages and/or excess mucus—it can become bothersome and affect you day and night. For example, a wet cough might be more noticeable at night when you lie down since the change in position can cause more mucus to shift to the back of your throat. A dry cough can also disrupt sleep, keeping you, and possibly your entire household, wide awake and tired the next day.

How To Treat A Cough

The best way to treat a cough is to first identify what type of cough you have so you can get appropriate symptom relief. Many over-the-counter cough, cold, and flu medicines treat multiple symptoms. Identify what symptoms you have besides cough, if any, so you can choose the best solution for you.

If an OTC medicine is right for you, you can then decide which kind of treatment you prefer-liquid medicine, pill, topical rub, or hot drink.

Liquids and LiquiCaps™

For a cough due to a cold or flu, you can use an over-the-counter medication like DayQuil Cough DM + Congestion. You can take it up to every four hours for non-drowsy cough relief. If your cough symptoms are worse at night NyQuil Cough DM + Congestion can help you get the sleep you need plus powerful cough relief. DayQuil Cough DM + Congestion contains the expectorant guaifenesin, which increases fluid secretion in the linings of the airways to help thin mucus that contains trapped inhaled particles and pathogens, along with white blood cells from the immune response fighting your infection, making it easier to cough up. The synchronized waves of repetitive swaying motion of small hair-like structures called cilia helps move the mucus up and out of the airways and lungs. This is called mucociliary clearance and is one of your body’s effective defense mechanisms that helps protect your lungs.3

Vicks also offers DayQuil Cold & Flu and NyQuil Cold & Flu. DayQuil Cold & Flu contains the active ingredients dextromethorphan for cough relief as well as acetaminophen to relieve muscle aches and pains, and phenylephrine, a nasal decongestant, to temporarily promote freer breathing. NyQuil Cold & Flu provides the same pain relief and cough suppression, combined with the antihistamine doxylamine succinate, to relieve runny nose. DayQuil and NyQuil Cold & Flu also come as LiquiCaps™ .

Topical Rub

VapoRub has helped relieve coughs for over 125 years. The menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus oil release soothing medicated vapors to suppress coughs. Apply it to the chest and throat to temporarily relieve cough due to minor throat and bronchial irritation associated with the common cold.

It’s also important to stay well hydrated when fighting cold and flu. For help with overnight symptoms, keep a glass of water handy by your bedside.

Whichever cough product you choose, an acute cough (one that’s caused by the common cold or an upper respiratory infection) may last less than three weeks.2

A cough that persists, comes back, or occurs with fever, rash or persistent headache could be a signal of a more serious issue requiring medical attention. You should consult your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

How to Prevent a Cough From Cold or Flu

If you have a cough, the last thing you want to do is spread it to a friend or family member. Similarly, you’d probably hope your friends and family would do their best to avoid spreading their cough to you.

Having strong immune defenses will go a long way toward helping you fight off next cough, cold, or flu coming your way. And one of the best building blocks to a strong cold- and flu-fighting immune system is sleep. Poor quality sleep or not enough sleep have been found to lower resistance to illness4 so having your sleep hygiene habits dialed in can help you face the outside world head-on with confidence …and a few “handy” hygiene practices as well.

Some of the simplest methods for preventing person-to-person or object-to-person transmission are also the most effective.6 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)6 and National Institutes for Health (NIH)5 offer the useful guidelines for preventing the spread of germs and viruses, including respiratory infection, and protecting yourself and those around you:

  • Practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover your cough: cough into a tissue or into your elbow, but not into your hands.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, all of which are easy entry points for bacteria and viruses into your body where they may cause infection.
  • Practice social distancing: maintain 6 feet of distance from others, including in public places.
  • Self-quarantine: if you develop cold or flu symptoms, stay home from work and/or school if possible.
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