If you have a persistent cough, it’s normal to seek ways to stop it. Although coughing is a natural reflex to help clear your throat and air passages, a persistent cough may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, including any type of lung disease.
Treating the underlying cause is usually the best way to stop coughing. Cough suppressant medications are sometimes helpful, but they rarely treat the cause and may produce side effects. There are several other things you can try for your cough that do not involve the use of medicines.
When your cough is due to a dry throat, drinking plenty of fluids will help keep your throat moist and reduce your cough. Staying hydrated will also thin out any mucus that is present in your throat and air passages.
As it is easier to cough up thin mucus than thick mucus, this may reduce the need for repeated coughing. Drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day is a good way to stay hydrated.
Adding honey to a cup of tea or warm lemon water may help stop your coughing. Although no studies have assessed the effectiveness of honey in adults, research in children suggests that it is helpful.
A study published by the “The Cochrane Library” in April 2018, which compiled the results of several previous studies, found that honey reduced coughing in children. It is important, however, to limit the use of honey if you have diabetes and not give any honey to a child less than 1 year old.
Using a humidifier to directly add moisture to your throat and air passages may also reduce coughing. Either cool air or steam humidifiers may be used, and adding a couple drops of eucalyptus oil to the humidifier may further reduce coughing.
If you choose to use a humidifier, follow the manufacturers carefully and clean the humidifier regularly to prevent mold or bacteria from growing inside it. Humidification can also be achieved by running a hot shower with the door closed, then sitting in the steam-filled room for at least 20 minutes.
Adjust Your Sleeping Position
Elevating your head when sleeping will often improve a cough. This is particularly helpful when a cough is due to mucus in your nose or sinuses, as this position will help the mucus drain into your stomach instead of accumulating in the back of your throat.
Elevating your head may also be useful if your cough is caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease. This position will reduce the tendency for acid to travel from your stomach back up into your throat, where it can stimulate coughing.
If you are a cigarette smoker, stopping smoking is one of the best ways to stop coughing. But be aware that sometimes coughing will get worse before it improves.
This occurs because small hairlike structures that line the air passages, called cilia, regain their normal function when a person stops smoking. Cilia normally act to sweep mucus up from the air passages and into the throat, but smoking paralyzes them. When smoking is stopped, the cilia quickly recover, pushing mucus into the throat, which triggers coughing.
Despite temporary worsening, coughing will almost always disappear by 4 weeks after stopping smoking unless severe lung damage has occurred, according to a February 2007 review article in “American Family Physician.”
Avoiding exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke is often a useful way to stop coughing. Some household cleaners or work chemicals can also irritate the throat or air passages and should be avoided. Reducing exposure to molds in your home or work environment will help stop coughing caused by a mold allergy.
Seek Medical Attention
If your coughing lasts more than a few days, see your doctor to determine the cause. This is especially important if you have unintentional weight loss or night sweats, as these may indicate that you have an underlying serious medical condition. Also see your doctor if you have a high fever, are wheezing, or are coughing up thick yellow or green mucus. Seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following:
- coughing up blood
- bluish lips
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
Reviewed and revised by Mary D. Daley, M.D.