Coughs: Causes, Symptoms and Remedies

Whether it’s wet or dry, productive or unproductive, loud and barking or soft, coughing is uncomfortable. But why do we cough, and what good is it doing our bodies when it’s part of our cold and flu symptoms? 

Why Do We Cough?

Cough (or irritant) receptors are scattered throughout your airways. When they get stimulated by irritants like dust or allergens, or triggered by an accumulation of excess mucus, they send a signal to the cough center in the brain. 

Your brain processes this information and then tells certain respiratory muscles to rapidly contract, which results in a cough. Coughing drives fast-moving air from the lungs, which causes your airways to vibrate. This vibration loosens the mucus that’s stuck to the mucus membranes in your airways. Coughing propels this mucus upwards and out of your airway. 

While you have the power to control your cough (for example, when you cough on purpose), an involuntary cough has reflexive power–meaning it will happen even when you don’t want it to. 

Symptoms of a Cough 

Productive or “Wet” Coughs vs. Unproductive or “Dry” Coughs

When you’re healthy, the cilia in your airways move mucus toward your throat to either be coughed up or swallowed. But, when you have chest congestion, mucus can build up in your airways and lungs, so your body has to cough to get rid of it. 

You may have heard the term “productive cough” or “wet cough.” A cough is productive (or wet) when you’re able to bring up mucus. The speed of the air travelling through the airways and the thickness of the mucus determine how effective your coughing is. 

If there is too much blockage in the airway and picking up speed is prevented, a cough is unproductive. This is more commonly known as a “dry cough.” This is when you’re unable to bring up any mucus. In some cases, an unproductive cough is a result of irritated airways that haven’t produced excess mucus. 

Remedies for a Cough 

Coughing at Night

When you’ve got a cough that keeps you up at night, chances are you don’t spend those sleepless hours ruminating on the wonders of your immune system. But your cough is actually pretty amazing: it’s your body’s way of expelling mucus, microbes and other foreign particles from your respiratory tract. While your doctor may have to determine if the source of your cough requires treatment—a cold usually resolves itself, while a sinus infection may call for antibiotics—there’s plenty you can do in the meantime to quiet your cough and get back to bed: 

  1. Chances are that hacking cough that’s keeping you from getting some shut-eye isn’t your only symptom: cough and congestion usually go hand-in-hand. Staying hydrated helps thin your mucus, making it easier to expel during waking hours. And when there’s less mucus sitting at the back of your throat, you’re less likely to cough through the night.
  2. A dry environment can be a major obstacle to nighttime cough relief. That’s because dry air aggravates your airways, which inevitably leads to more coughing. Forced air heating and cooling systems can contribute to a dry environment, as can the cold winter months. To combat the situation, run a humidifier or as you sleep. Adding humidity back into the air helps soothe your respiratory tract with every breath you take, leaving you less likely to cough. Running a humidifier during the day can be beneficial, too, because breathing warm, moist air helps loosen congestion, allowing you to expel more mucus before bedtime.
  3. Let gravity help: A cough often worsens in the evening, but if you find that yours is at its absolute worst when you’re lying down, it might be time to let gravity help. Using three or four pillows to elevate your head and upper body can help you breathe more easily if you’re congested; it also curbs the effects of post-nasal drip. This is also a common relief strategy for those affected by acid reflux, another condition that can cause or exacerbate nighttime coughing. If your nighttime cough happens to be a product of acid reflux, keeping your head and shoulders propped up makes it harder for irritating stomach acid to rise up into your throat and trigger a cough.
  4. Try drinking a cup of tea with honey just before bedtime — warm beverages can help soothe and quiet a cough. 

Coughs During the Day

You’ve slept through the night—now you have to treat the cough during the daytime. In this case, the first line of treatment is to thin the mucus the body is trying to expel—rather than trying to suppress coughing. Thinning the mucus that is trapped in your airways may change an unproductive cough into a productive cough. 

There are simple things you can do to help thin your mucus; most solutions can be found around your house: 

  1. Drink lots of fluids (water, tea, soup, etc)
  2. Use a humidifier or vaporizer or take a steamy shower 

“How Mucinex DM Can Help Relieve Your Cough”

While coughing helps reduce the excess mucus out of your airways, sometimes you need a break. Mucinex® DM combines both Guaifenesin and Dextromethorphan to give you fewer but more productive coughs, and help relieve chest congestion by thinning and loosening mucus. 

The medicine Dextromethorphan carries risks if abused. If you’re a parent, learn more about medicine abuse and how to combat it. Always use as directed. 

When to See Your Doctor for a Cough

If your cough persists for more than one week, comes back, or occurs with fever, rash or persistent headache, stop use and ask a doctor as these could be signs of a serious illness.