Coughing? When you may want to skip over-the-counter medication, according to experts

Coughing? When you may want to skip over-the-counter medication, according to experts

(NEXSTAR) — With multiple viruses and even bacteria going around this time of year, there’s a good chance you or someone in your household has fallen victim to illness recently. You may even be among the unlucky people experiencing a lingering cough.

Before you reach for a cough drop or a dose of cough medicine, you may want to consider all your options. 

As annoying or even painful as a cough can be, it sometimes serves a purpose. Coughing is your body’s reaction to something irritating your throat or airways, Mayo Clinic explains. 

The main viruses that are currently spreading — COVID, the flu, and RSV — can all cause you to cough. Other infections, like pneumonia or bronchitis, can cause chronic coughing, as can a number of other illnesses and conditions. There are a variety of different coughs, Cleveland Clinic explains: acute coughs, which can begin suddenly and last a few weeks; subacute coughs that last anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months after an infection; chronic coughs, which last for more than two months; and refractory coughs, or chronic coughing that hasn’t responded to treatment.

The type of cough you experience will influence the right treatment for you. For example, if your cough is caused by an infection, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic. 

But, according to health experts, an over-the-counter medicine might not always be worth it. 

According to Cleveland Clinic, a spoonful of honey can work just as well as cough syrups or medications. Doctors have also warned that over-the-counter products often don’t contain enough of the necessary drugs to be effective. 

It may also be best to let the cough run its course. Kaiser Permanente says you shouldn’t stop a productive cough, which brings up mucus or phlegm, as these are “often useful.” Preventing a cough altogether can lead to pneumonia and lung damage in some cases, Dr. Harold Farber, a pediatric pulmonologist with Texas Children’s Hospital explains.

This can be true in kids as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend giving children younger than 4 years old over-the-counter cold or cough medications. Pediatrician Dr. Pamela Phillips explained in a Cedars Sinai blog post that these medications can cause “sedation, irritability, and behavioral changes” that “tend to outweigh any potential benefits.”

So what can you do instead? 

Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Health recommend simply staying hydrated, especially if you have a productive cough with mucus and phlegm. If you’re experiencing a sore throat with the coughing, you can try drinking tea or hot water with honey or lemon juice; gargling warm salt water; sucking on a cough drop (which won’t affect your cough, Kaiser Permanente warns), or hard candy; spending time in moist air (like a hot shower); and avoiding smoke or using tobacco. When sleeping, doctors recommend propping your head up. 

You can also keep using cough medicine. If you do decide to reach for an over-the-counter product, Kaiser Permanente recommends avoiding those that treat many symptoms. Instead, try to treat each symptom separately. 

For a productive cough, you can try an expectorant, which works to thin mucus. If you have a dry cough keeping you up at night, Kaiser Permanente recommends a suppressant but again warns against stopping a cough too much, noting coughing “brings up mucus from the lungs and helps prevent bacterial infections.” Some of these products can help you sleep, something you may be missing out on at the expense of your cough. 

“If you think a product is working fine, it probably won’t hurt you, although you may be paying for a placebo effect rather than a proven remedy,” Harvard Health notes. Before taking an over-the-counter product, be sure to read the label. 

If an over-the-counter product isn’t helping, experts recommend speaking with your doctor. You should also seek medical attention if you’re wheezing; have a fever that has lasted more than a day or two, or a fever over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit; chills; or phlegm that is yellow, green, or blood, Cleveland Clinic explains. If you feel like you’re choking, are unable to breathe well, notice a lot of blood when coughing, or have severe chest pain, you should seek emergency medical attention.

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