A variety of things can provoke a coughing attack, including respiratory infections, asthma, smoking and sinus-related postnasal drip, among others. Coughing is a protective reflex, intended to clear your airways of harmful or irritating substances. Nonetheless, coughing sometimes runs amok and a prolonged attack can disrupt your daily activities or interfere with sleep. Several measures can potentially help stop a coughing attack, although research is lacking regarding non-medicinal cough remedies. A combination of measures often works best, and some trial-and-error might be needed to determine what is most effective for you.
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A compelling urge to cough frequently precedes and perpetuates a coughing attack. Sipping a warm fluid, such as hot tea or soup broth, might interrupt a bout of coughing. The exact mechanism by which this might help remains poorly understood, but it could be the soothing effect on the throat and upper airways. Although research data are lacking, the medical text Integrative Medicine, Fourth Edition suggests that chamomile, ginger and mint teas might be helpful for coughs due to an upper respiratory infection. Teas made from other demulcent herbs -- those that coat and soothe the throat -- might also help suppress cough. Examples of these herbs include licorice root, marshmallow root, mullein and slippery elm bark. Many people enjoy a twist a lemon in these teas.
Honey has long history as a cough remedy and there is now some evidence supporting its effectiveness. A study published in September 2012 in the journal "Pediatrics" found that honey reduced the frequency and severity of coughing due to a cold in children. A December 2014 report from the "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews" noted that two additional studies evaluating honey for cough found similar results. It's unclear why honey helps suppress cough but some scientists speculate that activation of sweet-sensing receptors in the throat might disrupt the cough reflex. Others theorize that honey eases a cough because of its demulcent effects. Many people add honey to hot herbal tea to treat a cough.
Cough Drops and Lozenges
As evidenced by the array of products in the cold aisle of any pharmacy, cough drops and lozenges remain a popular remedy for stopping coughing attacks. As with other cough remedies, there is virtually no research to support the effectiveness of cough drops and lozenges. Nonetheless, many people find them helpful. It's possible that the physical act of repeated swallowing might temporarily disrupt the cough reflex. Drops and lozenges containing menthol might also soothe the upper airway lining tissues by generating a cooling sensation, thereby reducing the urge to cough.
Warm, Moist Air
While not necessarily the quickest way to halt a coughing attacking, breathing warm, moist air might help. As cold, dry air is known to stimulate coughing, it makes sense that warm, moist air might help suppress the cough reflex -- although research data are lacking. A hot shower might be helpful if you're at home. Running hot water in the sink and breathing the air over the basin might be faster and more convenient. A warm mist humidifier or vaporizer is another option. Avoid breathing steam coming off of boiling water as this could burn your airways.
Next Steps and Precautions
A short-term cough associated with a cold generally doesn't pose a health threat and typically clears up within a few days without specific treatment. However, if you experience a severe, persistent or worsening cough, it's best to see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. This is particularly important if the cough is accompanied by other warning signs or symptoms, including:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Coughing spell that provoke gagging or vomiting
- Fever or chills
- Chest pain or tightness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sensation that something is caught in the throat
- Unintentional weight loss
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.