Coughing is the body’s way of removing foreign material or mucus from the lungs. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. Productive coughs produce phlegm or mucus (sputum) that comes up from the lungs. This kind of cough generally should not be suppressed; it is needed to clear mucus from the lungs. Nonproductive coughs are dry coughs that do not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. Dry coughs that follow viral illness may last up to several weeks and often get worse at night.*A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma.
- Don’t smoke. A dry, hacking “smoker’s cough” means your lungs are constantly irritated.
- Increase fluid intake to as much as 8 to 10 glasses of water every day. You are drinking enough if you are urinating more often than usual.
- Drink lots of water. Water helps loosen phlegm and soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs respond to honey in hot water, tea, or lemon juice. (Do not give honey to children under one year of age.)
- Cough drops can soothe irritated throats, but most have no effect on the cough-producing mechanism. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are not any better than inexpensive candy-flavored ones or hard candy.
- Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.
- Use an over-the-counter cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan to help quiet a dry, hacking cough so you can sleep. If you have a productive cough, don’t suppress it so much that you are no longer bringing up mucus.
- For coughs caused by inhaled irritants (smoke, dust or other pollutants), avoid exposure or wear a face mask.
When to Call a Health Professional
If the following signs of a bacterial infection develop:
- Fever of 104 or higher that does not reduce with two hours of home treatment.
- Fever over 101 with shaking chills and productive cough.
- Persistent fever. Many viral illnesses, especially the flu, cause fevers of 102 or higher for short periods of time (up to 12 to 24 hours). Call a doctor if the fever stays high:
102 or higher for two full days
101 or higher for three full days
100 or higher for four full days
- Labored, shallow, rapid breathing with shortness of breath.
- Sputum (mucus coughed up from lungs) is yellow, green, rust-colored, or bloody, and other symptoms (fever, productive cough, fatigue) are worsening. Sputum that is coughed up from the lungs is more significant than mucus that has drained down the back of the throat (postnasal drip).
- Cough that lingers more than 7 to 10 days after other symptoms have cleared, especially if it is productive (bringing up sputum). A dry, hacking cough may last several weeks after a viral illness such as a cold.
- If any cough lasts more than four weeks.