Excessive mucus and cough are indicative of a disease affecting the airways and lungs. Mucus serves to trap debris or pathogens, and the cough serves to expel it from the respiratory tract. As such, cough and mucus production can serve useful functions. However, some disease states are associated with excessive, pathological coughing and mucus production. The first step is often to treat the underlying condition causing the symptoms. The second step is to treat the symptoms themselves. A persistent cough should be followed by a health care professional.
Treating Underlying Conditions
Most of the time, coughing and mucus production are associated with underlying conditions; as the condition is treated, the symptoms improve. For example, pneumonia can be caused by a bacterial infection of the lungs. The affected area of lung fills with fluid and cells from lung tissue and the immune system, which stimulates more irritation of the lungs and airways and causes cough. Antibiotics help to fight off the infection and eliminate the source of the cough. As another example, asthma is caused by the airways over-reacting to factors in the environment such as animal dander. The airways narrow and produce excessive mucus, which induces a cough. Medications for asthma alleviate these symptoms.
Benzonatate and Guaifenesin
Benzonatate is a pill that acts like a local anesthetic on the nerves of the lungs. It causes the nerves in the lungs to be less sensitive to stimulation by triggers of the cough. This drug can be combined with another drug called guaifenesin to also address mucus production. Guaifenesin is a drug that loosens mucus in the airways, making it easier for a person to clear.
Opiates include such drugs as codeine and morphine. They are often used for moderate to severe pain. Another effect is to decrease the cough reflex. Unlike benzonatate, which acts on the nerves in the lungs, opiates decrease the cough reflex in the brain. Side effects may include slowing the breathing rate, gastrointestinal upset and a potential for addiction.
A drug that has less to no addiction potential in most people is called dextromethorphan. It is an opiate, but at common doses it appears to only decrease cough. It does not treat pain. Dextromethorphan is one of the most commonly used cough medications, and is also often combined with guaifenesin.
- "Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2010"; Stephen J. McPhee et al.; 49th Ed; 2010
- "Harrison's Principles of Interna Medicine"; Anthony Fauci et al.; 17th Ed.; 2008