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A persistent cough is often the lingering reminder of colds or flu. Here are five practical ways to deal with repeated coughing spells without prescription medication.

Nearly everyone has had the experience of a cough that just won't go away. Days, weeks, and even months after getting over colds or flu, nagging coughing spells may still keep you up at night or make it hard to talk or eat. 

A cough is nothing more than the body's way of getting rid of mucus or foreign objects from the lungs or throat. At first a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, but if the condition that causes a cough lasts long enough the cough itself becomes a disease as the central nervous system "rewires" itself to make the lungs more and more sensitive to cough triggers.

That is why it is always better to start with a dry cough treatment sooner rather than later. It is also why the most obvious ways of treating coughs such as taking cough syrup, usually don't work if a cough has become chronic. It is a symptom that persists even when other symptoms go away. And even treating cough makes you feel better, and may help you get the rest you need to avoid new health problems, but controlling cough by itself will not cure you of any disease condition.

Coughs are typically categorized as productive or non-productive. Productive coughs result in phlegm coming up. Non-productive coughs do not. Let's start with ways to relieve productive coughs, and then turn to five more ways to treat non-productive, chronic coughs.

1. Make coughs more productive by loosening up phlegm.

Sometimes a cough just won't go away because the phlegm is too sticky. The solution to this problem is to make the cough more "productive" by loosening up phlegm with an expectorant. The solution to non-productive cough is not taking a cough suppressant to keep you from coughing. Sometimes you want to loosen up hardened mucus and get your coughing over with.

This means that when you have hard, sticky mucus clogging your lungs, you do not take over the counter medications that contain the ingredient dextromethorphan, which is also sometimes identified on the label as DM or DXM. Do not use Coricidin, Delsym, Dimetapp, NyQuil, Robitussin, TheraFlu, Vicks, or generic dextromethorphan.

Instead, take a an over the counter remedy that contains the ingredient guaifenesin. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the EU, this ingredient may be labeled as guaiphenesin or glyceryl guaiacolate. Guaifenesin is mucolytic, gently breaking up mucus so it is more easily coughed up.

"Natural" expectorants include the herbs anise and horehound.

While it's possible to loosen up a cough by taking a shot of the anise-flavored liqueur ouzo, you can get more reliable relief by doing aromatherapy with the essential oil of anise (always added to steaming water to be inhaled, never taken by mouth). Horehound, which is known in the southwestern USA and the Spanish-speaking world as marrubio, is available in drops, lozenges, and candies. 

2. Stop the production of mucus at its source.

Sometimes a persistent, productive cough is caused by the accumulation of mucus generated in the nose, not the in the lungs. The watery mucus generated by post-nasal drip can clog up the bronchial passageways and cause cough, as can the darker, thicker mucus associated with sinusitis. These two conditions contribute to upper-airway cough syndrome (UACS); which is the most commonly diagnosed cause of cough.

How do you get rid of post-nasal drip? Post-nasal drip is most often caused by allergies. You could take antihistamines, of course, or you could get rid of allergens. This means paying careful attention to dusting, vacuuming, and elimination of mold. If there is a food you eat at absolutely every meal, it is a prime candidate for causing post-nasal drip. Try changes in diet, not repeating any single food for 3 to 4 days, and see if your cough clears up.

Sinusitis is more likely to be due to infection. Cleansing the nostrils with a neti pot may help remove the mucus that keeps reinfecting your sinuses, and your immune system may be able to do the job from there. Persistent sinusitis, however, usually requires a doctor's intervention.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Chung KF. Chronic cough: future directions in chronic cough: mechanisms and antitussives. Chron Respir Dis. 2007.4(3):159-65.
  • Palombini BC, Villanova CA, Araújo E, Gastal OL, Alt DC, Stolz DP, et al. A pathogenic triad in chronic cough: asthma, postnasal drip syndrome, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Chest. Aug 1999.116(2):279-84.
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