An acute cough – one lasting less than three weeks – is one of the most common reasons for new visits to the GP. They are usually linked to colds and other viruses affecting our upper airways and often clear up on their own within a couple of weeks, according to the British Thoracic Association.
A cough can be uncomfortable and irritating and get in the way of daily life, as well as disturbing sleep. And, while over-the-counter cough medicines won’t ‘cure’ a cough, they may help relieve symptoms allowing you to get through a film, work, or get to sleep without hacking away.
The key is to pinpoint the most troublesome symptom and choose the best product to tackle that. A pharmacist can help you choose something, but see the GP if symptoms are still troublesome after three weeks.
A new persistent cough is one of the symptoms of Covid-19. Visit the NHS website for up-to-date information on coronavirus symptoms
Over the counter medicines to treat coughs
For dry, tickly coughs: Cough suppressants
Common brands: Covonia Night Time Formula, Robitussin Dry Cough Medicine, Actifed Multi-Action Dry Cough
Use to: ease a tickly, unproductive irritating cough and help quell the urge to cough. Can produce useful relief, especially at night when sleep is disturbed.
Active ingredients: may include codeine, pholcodine, dextromethorphan and antihistamines, which act at the cough centre in the brain to suppress the cough reflex.
For chesty coughs: Expectorants
Common brands: Boots Pharmaceuticals Mucus Cough Relief, Benylin Chesty Coughs, Robitussin Chesty Cough Medicine
Use to: help loosen and thin sticky mucus enabling you to cough up irritating phlegm and ease congestion.
Active ingredients: may include guaifenesin, ammonium chloride, squill, sodium citrate and ipecacuanha.
For a cough with a sore throat: Demulcent and herbal products
Common brands: Veno’s Honey and Lemon Syrup, Care Simple Linctus, BronchoStop cough syrup
Use to: coat the throat, protecting against irritants so reducing the stimulus to cough.
Active ingredients: may include glycerine, honey, pectin, lemon, herbs.
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Best home remedies for coughs
Lemon to boost vitamin C
Lemon is a good source of vitamin C, although not the best (red peppers and kiwis contain more, gram for gram) and vitamin C has been found to shorten the duration of cold symptoms by 8% (one less day of cold symptoms) in a study of 11,000 people.
Zinc to reduce coughs
You can buy lozenges or syrup containing zinc and either will reduce the time you suffer with a cold, if you take it within the first 24 hours of feeling unwell, according to a research report from health-research review the Cochrane Collaboration. It's believed that zinc might prevent rhinovirus from multiplying, although so far the there have not been enough participants in studies to make it certain.
Chicken soup to ease congestion
This is recommended for everything from a cold to the flu and for good reason: drinking plenty of fluids is key to getting rid of any virus and soup is good for that, it’s hot so keeps your body warm too, and research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, USA, revealed that chicken soup has mild anti-inflammatory properties which would explain the effect. congestion and thins mucus.
Ginger as an anti-inflammatory
Ginger is another anti-inflammatory and drinking ginger tea, like eating chicken soup, increases your hot-fluid intake, which also helps your body overcome the illness. Ginger has also been found to reduce congestion and inflammation, although further studies are needed.
Garlic or onion to reduce sore throat
Garlic and onion (both in the allium family) are naturally anti-inflammatory and so it makes sense that they would help to reduce symptoms of a cold or a cough, many of which such as blocked nasal passages and a sore throat are a result of inflammation. You may not even need to eat it – inhaling the fumes of onion may also help ease your symptoms. A study found that the duration of a cold was reduced by as much as 61% in participants who were taking 2.5g of aged garlic extract per day.
Honey for tickly throats
Honey is a natural antimicrobial and so may well help your body fight off an infection. Honey can also help soothe the feeling of a tickly throat when you’ve got a cough. Finally, it also acts as an expectorant, helping your body to bring up phlegm. In 2020 scientists from University of Oxford analysed the results of 14 different studies and found that honey was a more effective treatment than antibiotics, and was particularly good against coughs, although they did say further research was needed.
Water to help flush the virus
Water is the best natural remedy of all and often overlooked. If you fail to drink enough water – in the form of plain water, in tea, juice and soups – you will struggle to get better. Fluids help your body flush out the virus and soothe inflammation and also thin phlegm. Water is the closest thing to a miracle medication when it comes to coughs and colds, and there's a good reason warm water with honey and lemon is such a popular herbal remedy.
Read our guide to getting over the common cold
What happens when your cough has not cleared up?
I picked up a cough over the winter and, two months later, it still hasn’t gone. It’s not bad, and I am otherwise well, but it is starting to annoy my wife. Will my GP be able to help?
Dr Mark Porter's reply:
A typical viral winter cough often takes at least two to three weeks to settle, but two months is too long and you should book in to see your GP. A persistent cough of this duration is never normal.
Possible diagnoses vary from mild whooping cough (yes, it still exists) to underlying heart and lung problems, and investigation and treatment will vary accordingly, but there are a couple of common culprits worth highlighting because they are missed so often.
The first applies to anyone on ACE inhibitors, a family of drugs ending in -pril, such as ramipril and perindopril, used to treat heart problems and high blood pressure. These cause an annoying dry cough in around one in ten of the millions of people in the UK who take them. It can take weeks to come on and just as long to settle after treatment is withdrawn, so the link isn’t always made. And it often presents as a viral cough that never settles. Switching to an alternative drug, and a bit of patience, is all that is required.
A second possible cause is acid reflux, a common problem in the over-50s where the valve at the top of the stomach allows acidic fumes to escape into the throat. This type of cough tends to be worse after meals, on rising in the morning, when talking on the phone or laughing. An acid reflux cough often sounds as if the sufferer were continually trying to clear their throat. Medication (typically antacids such as omeprazole and lansoprazole) can make a big difference in such cases, but it can take a couple of weeks for things to improve.
Medication for high blood pressure, such as ramipril and related drugs (all ending in -pril), can aggravate acid reflux coughing by intensifying the cough reflex. Either way, one to discuss with the GP.
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