Take a breath

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2009, 12:00am

Coughing is a reflex that helps to keep our throat and airways clear and sterile. If dirt or dust get into the lungs, bacteria could start breeding there, causing an infection or even pneumonia.

A cough usually begins when a foreign substance or mucus (phlegm) stimulates the nerve pathways in our respiratory tract. This sends signals to the brain to tell the muscles in the stomach and chest to give a strong push of air from the lungs to force out the irritant.

Coughing is a symptom of many conditions but commonly it is a result of:

Common cold or allergy: Mucus is made every day in the glands of our nose and throat. It helps to keep our nasal passages clear and moist. When we have a cold, allergy or a sinus infection, we make much more mucus than usual.

This excess mucus builds up in the back of the throat - this is called post-nasal drip. This build-up causes irritation and inflammation which triggers the cough reflex.

Asthma: Coughing is a symptom of asthma which is accompanied by wheezing and shortness of breath. Coughs related to asthma are usually affected by the weather and if a sufferer has had an upper airway infection.

Heartburn: This is when stomach acid comes back up from the gullet and spills over into the windpipe. The constant irritation can lead to chronic coughing.

When coughing requires medical attention

If you have had a cough for more than two weeks, or you're coughing up thick yellow or green phlegm, visit your doctor.

Seek emergency care if you're wheezing, have difficulty with breathing, have a stiff neck, if you're running a fever, have a chest pain or you're coughing up blood.

Coughing cures

If you have a dry cough, you can take an anti-tussive - medicine which suppresses the need to cough. If you have a cough that produces phlegm, you can take an expectorant. This helps you cough more effectively and bring up any mucus that may have drained down your throat from your nose.

Don't take cough medicine for more than two weeks without consulting your doctor. If your cough hasn't cleared up in that time, it could be that you have been taking the wrong kind of medication, or you could have a more serious ailment.

If you have a cough, don't spread infection

Remember that coughing spreads disease by dispersing germs through the air and on skin. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue while coughing.

If you cough into your hands, remember to follow the same rules as when you sneeze or blow your nose. Wash your hands immediately, and do not handle or eat any food until you've done so.

Ease that cough

1 Suck cough lozenges: these help to ease a dry cough and soothe an irritated throat.

2 Increase the moisture in the air by using a vaporiser or try taking a hot, steamy shower or bath.

3 Drink lots of fluid. Liquid helps to thin down the mucus in your throat. Warm soup or herbal tea is particularly effective.