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Coughs: When to treat them yourself, and when to see a doctor


Coughing is a reflex that keeps lungs and airways free of excess mucus and foreign objects like food. Productive coughs are loose and characterized by excessive phlegm. When associated with a cold, coughing clears the airways.

There is no benefit to a scratchy, dry cough that causes throat irritation.

Both types of cough may persist for two or more weeks.

Because all colds are viral infections, they don't respond to antibiotics, but coughs can be relieved with home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) products. Self-treatment is recommended.

For a productive cough, drinking water and other clear liquids to thin phlegm is the most effective remedy.

There is no harm in swallowing loosened phlegm, say doctors at Johns Hopkins Medical Centers.

Cough drops soothe the throat, but hard candy, tea with lemon, and chicken soup work about as well.

Drinking fluids is more effective than taking "expectorant" cough medicines, say the doctors.

* See a doctor if there are other symptoms such as persistent fever, headache, sore throat, blood in the phlegm, or chest pain.

For a dry cough, OTC cough "suppressants" can be helpful, especially at night. Most contain a substance similar to morphine that suppresses the part of the brain that controls the cough reflex.

Use suppressants sparingly so phlegm doesn't build up. (Drinking more water is still important.)

* See your doctor for any cough that continues to worsen after about a week. The symptoms may point toward a chronic condition such as postnasal drip syndrome, asthma, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine show these three conditions accounted for 92 percent of all persistent coughs among subjects who did not have colds. * Be aware of the fact that doctors are also seeing more cases of pertussis, or whooping cough. It's a serious disease that is treated best with antibiotics in the early stages.

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