A cough is a sudden, explosive expulsion of air from the lungs, usually caused by the need to expel something from the air passages. Productive coughing brings up mucus (referred to as sputum or phlegm) while an unproductive, dry cough does not.
Symptoms and Causes
Different cough sounds may be signals of different, underlying problems. If your cough persists, seek the assistance of a qualified health practitioner.
Examples of coughs include: Constant, severe coughing with thick mucus production, which may signal chronic bronchitis (bronchitis often associated with smoking or passive smoke exposure).
A very dry cough with profound symptoms of fever and fatigue, which may signal an approaching severe bout of acute bronchitis. (Viral bronchitis usually has a persistent cough that disturbs sleep.)
Dry coughs that are usually worse at night may signal bronchospasm (temporary narrowing of the bronchi, the larger tubes of airways) that can be associated with asthma, infection, or allergies.
Allergic coughs may occur along with runny nose and wheezing, or begin after certain foods are consumed or at different times of the year.
Coughing up blood (hemoptysis). If blood appears in the sputum it may be due to a rupturing of blood vessels in airways, lungs, nose, or throat secondary to causes that may be mild or serious and need to be evaluated. Blood may appear as bright red or rusty-brown streaks, pinkish froth, or bright red pure blood. In cases of such coughs a chest X-ray may be advisable. If X-rays show abnormalities, if you are over 40 and/or a smoker, or if you have coughed up blood before, you may need a bronchoscopy, a procedure that allows for direct viewing of the lungs by insertion of a soft, flexible tube. One-third of people undergoing this procedure are found to have no underlying serious problem.
Coughing associated with changes of posture suggest lung abscess or other severe diseases, while coughs associated with eating may suggest serious swallowing or trachea problems. Coughs due to exercise or cold air may signal asthma.
In young children with inflammation of the respiratory tract, the airways can narrow so much that it produces a hoarse metallic cough called the croup.
Persistent short, mild, dry coughs in the spring may signal hay fever. Rattles of secretions associated with a dry, barking cough may signal an infection of the trachea, while pneumonia (lung inflammation secondary to infection) usually produces painful coughing associated with flecks of blood.
Cancers of the airways may produce a mild cough at first that gets worse and then produces mucus that is blood-flecked.
Sputum (expectorated matter) produced with the cough signals the following: changes (white to yellowish, green, or brown) mean that an infection is involved; blood streaking means infection is getting worse and requires the immediate attention of a doctor; gritty material in sputum may mean a serious condition of the lungs called broncholithiasis--inflammation or obstruction caused by calculi (stones, usually formed by mineral salts) in the bronchi.
Other Causes: Coughing may also be due to a simple illness, like upper respiratory infection or the common cold, or may signal a more serious illness. It may also be due to irritation from the environment (smoke, dust, pollens), be caused by mucus dripping in back of the throat, be a sign of nervousness, or be a symptom of an underlying health disorder.
Note: Important questions to ask about your cough in order to determine what it might be a signal of include: How long has it occurred? Did it start suddenly? Has it changed recently? What factors make it worse? What time of day does it most frequently occur? Is your cough accompanied by the production of mucus? If so, what color is the mucus? Are you experiencing any other pains or symptoms? Is your cough associated with work or exercise? Proper treatment of your cough depends entirely on the underlying cause.
Caution: A cough is an important diagnostic signal from your body and should not be simply suppressed. Any long-standing or intransigent coughing should receive professional medical attention. Although home treatment is safe and effective for minor coughs of short duration or coughs associated with mild infections, if in doubt seek prompt medical advice.
Aromatherapy: Steam with thyme, benzoin, eucalyptus, frankincense, myrrh, peppermint, sandalwood, chamomile, or juniper essential oils. Add a few drops of the essential oil to water, bring to a boil, then allow to simmer. Place your head over the pan of simmering water, covering your head with a towel and inhale for 10-20 minutes.
Diet: Eat whole foods, especially lots of raw fruits and vegetables. Also avoid mucus-producing foods, such as sugar, salty foods, dairy products, and starches. In cases of dry cough unrelated to other conditions, umeboshi plum paste can be very soothing.
You can also make a cough syrup from eight ounces of warm pineapple juice and two teaspoons of honey. The bromelain in the pineapple juice is activated by the honey. As an alternative, mix the juice of one lemon with two tablespoons of glycerine, then add 12 teaspoons of honey and stir before each use. Take one teaspoon every 30 minutes, reducing as needed. (Do not refrigerate.)
Another useful kitchen remedy is to slice an onion into a deep bowl and cover in honey, letting stand overnight. The next morning, strain the mixture of juice and honey and take one teaspoon four or five times a day.
Herbs: Coltsfoot, horehound, and mullein are safe and effective for children and adults. Use as an infusion at least three times a day until your symptoms abate.
For a dry irritating cough, use an infusion of marshmallow leaves.
For cough with mucus, make a tea of 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder, a pinch of clove, and a pinch of cinnamon powder in one cup of water. In addition, gargle a solution made from one pinch of salt and two pinches of tumeric powder added to glass of water.
For chronic coughs, make a confection of one part sesame seeds (black seeds if possible) and 1/2 part shatavari. Add ginger and raw sugar to taste and take one ounce daily.
Flower Essences: Crab Apple can be helpful if your cough is due to infection.
Homeopathy: For dry coughs: Belladonna, Aconite, Drosera, Bryonia, Phosphorus, Hyoscyamus, rumex, and spongia. These last three remedies must be taken alone, not in combination with other remedies.
For loose coughs: Ipecac, Merc sol., Pulsatilla, Kali bich., and Kali carb are all useful remedies.
Hydrotherapy: Hydrotherapy is the application of water, ice, steam and hot and cold temperatures to maintain and restore health. Treatments include full body immersion, steam baths, saunas, sitz baths, colonic irrigation and the application of hot and/or cold compresses. Hydrotherapy is effective for treating a wide range of conditions and can easily be used in the home as part of a self-care program. Many Naturopathic Physicians, Physical Therapists and Day Spas use Hydrotherapy as part of treatment. We suggest several . Please seek the advice of your alternative health care practitioner before undergoing these procedures to make sure they are appropriate for you.
*Purified water is essential for any hydrotherapy treatment. The section Remedies for Treating Chlorinated Bath Water offers clear instructions and recommendations.
Juice Therapy: Drink lots of fresh-squeezed, organic fruit and vegetable juices. Hot pear juice with cinnamon stick and added cardamon and cumin is a very useful juice remedy for coughs that are not serious in nature.
Nutritional Supplementation: Zinc lozenges, vitamin A, vitamin C with bioflavonoids, vitamin E, and folic acid are all useful nutrients for cough.
Alternative Professional Care
If your symptoms persist despite the above measures, seek the help of a qualified health professional. The following professional care therapies have all been shown to be useful for treating and relieving the symptoms of cough: Acupuncture, Acupressure, Applied Kinesiology, Bodywork, Chiropractic, Detoxification Therapy, Environmental Medicine, Guided Imagery, Magnetic Field Therapy, Naturopathic Medicine, Neural Therapy, Osteopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.