Those irritating cough symptoms can be notoriously difficult to shake. Liz Connor asks an expert for advice.
There’s nothing worse than a hacking cough that keeps you up at night and makes you sound like the walking dead at work.
With winter approaching, thousands of us will be bothered by tickly throats that refuse to budge – no matter how many throat lozenges or bottles of cough syrup we throw at the situation.
Want to quit coughing on your colleagues for good? Our expert explains how to shift a lingering tickle that’s outstayed its welcome.
Be patient and give your body a chance
If you started coughing on Monday, it might feel reasonable to expect to be feeling fine by the weekend. But it can actually take up to three weeks for a cough to fully resolve itself. Chronic coughs are usually triggered by a nasty bout of cold or flu, and tend to hang around in the aftermath of a viral infection.
Abbas Kanani, a pharmacist from Chemist Click, explains that when certain bacteria or viruses – such as the cold or flu virus – enter our respiratory system, excess mucus is produced in order to help the body get rid of these infections and bugs. It’s this unpleasant overload that triggers the cough reflex, as a way of clearing out the chest area.
“Our respiratory system produces mucus, which acts as a lubricant and a filter,” says Kanani. “Mucus keeps the respiratory tract moist, and protects it from irritants that may have been inhaled from the air we breathe.”
During this time, Kanani recommends you drink plenty of water. “It’s important to keep yourself hydrated, especially if your body is fighting off an infection,” he says. “Water can also help to loosen mucus, so that it can be expelled easily.”
Hot water, lemon and honey is a handy go-to if you’re struggling to croak out your words first thing in the morning. “Honey helps to soothe the chest, whilst both lemon and honey contain natural antibacterial properties,” says Kanani. “Lemon also contains vitamin C, which helps to boost the immune system.”
Have a facial steam bath
Kanani also recommends using a facial steam bath to help break up thick mucus in the airways. Boil a pan of water, remove from heat and add a few drops of eucalyptus. Then all you need to do is throw a towel over your head and start inhaling the sinus-clearing vapours from the mixture.
If all else fails, medication can provide some relief. “Cough medicines known as ‘expectorants’ can help to ease a chesty cough by thinning and loosening mucus,” says Kanani. “Your local pharmacy can give you advice on whether they’re suitable for you.”
Peppermint is a natural source of menthol, which is an expectorant, so swap that mid-morning coffee for a cup of peppermint to add to the hydration, too.
Make sure to mindfully spit
Once the mucus begins to break up in the chest, there’s only one way for it to get out – and that’s through the mouth. We know it sounds disgusting, but the best way to expel the small gunge pit that’s forming in your chest is to spit it out. If you swallow instead, you’re sending the phlegm back down the throat to fester where it came from.
It goes without saying that spitting on the ground is as unsanitary as it is impolite, so make sure you’re being mindful of others by discreetly depositing any unsightly mucus into a tissue and then flushing it down the toilet.
Watch out for more serious symptoms
“Most people have had a chesty cough on a number of occasions, and it usually isn’t anything to worry about,” says Kanani. “However, you should make an appointment to see your GP if you spot any potentially worrying signs.”
For example, if your mucus is green, or a colour different to yellow, it can mean you’ve got a chest infection and may need antibiotics. A cough that lasts for more than three weeks may also be a sign of an underlying medical issue that needs investigating.
“Most people know their bodies and you should be able to identify a cough that is not typical of a seasonal chesty cough – this could be a hacking or uncontrollable cough,” says Kanani. “A cough that is worse than usual could be cause for concern.”