Fighting off coughs and colds

Written by: 
Dr Knut Schroeder, General Practitioner and Author, Diagnosing Your Health Symptoms For Dummies

However they come, coughs can be very annoying but are, in most cases, harmless and nothing much to worry about. This is because coughing is a natural defence to anything that enters or irritates your throat or lungs and is a way of getting rid of the stuff. So being able to cough is very important for maintaining your health. Coughs can be dry, or they may produce phlegm.

If you have the sniffles and a sore throat as well as a cough, the most likely cause is a simple (or common) cold – a viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. of your upper airways, which include your mouth, throat, windpipe and part of your lungs. You may also have a fever for a few days and headache, as well as general aches and pains.

The symptoms of a cough due to a cold often start to improve after a few days. But because your throat and windpipe have become inflamed, the cough itself may last for up to three or four weeks even though the infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. has already cleared. This dry cough can be hugely annoying, but usually isn’t dangerous and doesn’t have any lasting effects.

Apart from the common cold, there are some other common causes of cough that are worth knowing about:

Smoking

Smoking is one of the commonest reasons for a persistent cough, which is often worse in the mornings.

Medication

If you take blood pressure lowering medication and you have a persistent dry cough, check whether your tablets belong to a group called angiotensin-converting-enzymeA protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body without being used up itself. (ACE) inhibitors. These drugs can bring on a dry cough – a relatively common and annoying side effect.

There are many other potential causes of cough, some of which are serious (such as lung cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.). Seek medical advice if you also notice any of the following, particularly if you’re a smoker and over the age of 40:

  • You notice unexplained sweating, weight loss, loss of appetite, or all of these
  • You feel tired all the time for no reason
  • You notice a new swelling in your neck or develop a persistent hoarse voice
  • You cough up bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid.

When suffering from a cough due to the common cold, taking paracetamol or ibuprofen usually helps to make you feel better. Make sure you drink regular fluids (water and teas are usually best) and ask your pharmacist for alternative preparations that may work for you – although little evidence exists that over-the-counter cough medicines do much good.

If you’re concerned because your cough lasts for longer than you think it should, or if you’re worried for any other reason, contact your doctor for advice.