Coughing and Cough Medicine Explained


A cough is a sudden reflex that humans and most animals have as a way of clearing the throat and the breathing tract of foreign materials, fluids, irritants and microbial organisms. It results in a swift expulsion of air from the lungs and the throat. A cough can be deliberate or involuntary depending on the underlying trigger. However, if the cough becomes persistent, then it could be a sign of a microbial infection. One of the best solutions to overcoming a cough is through use of a cough syrup.

The general mechanism of coughing

A cough reflex comes in three phases: the inhalation phase, the involuntary exhalation with a closed glottis phase (the glottis is the middle part of the larynx where the vocal chords are located), and the explosive release of air when the glottis is open.

Common causes of coughs

The most common cause of coughs is an infection in the respiratory tract. However, it can also be triggered by other factors like inhalation of polluted air, gastrointestinal reflex disease, chronic bronchitis, chocking, lung tumor, smoking, heart failures, ACE inhibitors and post nasal drip.

The cause of a cough can determine how long you are going to cough if you do not take remedies like cough syrup. For instance, the causes of an acute cough can be very different from the causes of a chronic cough. Some of the common causes of acute cough include acute sinusitis, common cold, pertussis or whooping cough, both allergic and non-allergic rhinitis as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The most common cause of a chronic cough is prolonged exposure to an environmental irritant (i.e. smoke, dust, industrial chemicals, heavy pollution, etc.) but a chronic cough can also be caused by chronic lung conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or asthma. The causes of acute and chronic coughing are often established after examining the patient’s physical condition and medical history.
A man coughing

Different types of coughs

Productive cough

This type of cough produces some form of phlegm or mucus. The mucus may be originating from the lungs or draining down the back of the throat from the nose. During this type of cough, you will feel the contents of your respiratory tract moving around after each cough. While having a productive cough, you will need to avoid using any cough suppressant medication in order to let your cough eliminate the mucus that is congesting your chest. However, you may consider taking an expectorant cough syrup in order to help loosen and cough out mucus from your lungs. The more mucus you will manage to expel from your lungs, the easier it will be for you to breathe and less likely to develop more serious infections.

Non Productive cough

This is also referred to as a dry cough and it is basically the reverse of the productive cough. This cough does not lead to production of any mucus. It is often common towards the end of a cold when you are no longer expelling any mucus. It can also result from exposure to respiratory irritants like dust and dander. While having a dry cough, you may consider using suppressant cough syrups to help manage your condition.

Other common types of coughs include “barking” cough, whooping cough, psychogenic cough and reflex cough.

Warning signs of a more serious condition

It is recommended that you seek medical attention when you notice the following symptoms in association with your cough.

  1. Production of green, tan, yellow or bloody mucus that also smells bad
  2. High fever, over 38 degrees Celsius
  3. Shortening of breath or breathing difficulties
  4. Persistent cough that lasts more than one month
  5. When the cough, and the underlying causes, are impairing the quality of your life
  6. Chest pain while coughing
  7. Wheezing
  8. Weight loss
  9. Night sweats and/or chills
  10. Heart problems

Cough Medicine

How cough syrups work to get rid of coughs

A cough syrup, whether prescribed or administered over the counter, usually comes in the form of a thick liquid and works by suppressing or expectorating a cough. Suppressant syrups treat coughing by drying out the mucus membranes that produce the cough triggering phlegm. Some of the suppressant syrups include Hydrocodone, Codeine, Nospcapine, Pholcodine and Actymorphone. Expectorant cough syrups do the opposite of suppressant syrups. Thus, if you are having chest congestions, then you may want to take expectorant syrups in order to loosen and expel mucus from your body. Different cough syrups are recommended depending on whether they are being used to treat children or adults. Caution must always be taken to avoid allergies and complications due to other types of medicine.

Effects of cough syrup overdose

Most cough suppressants are habit forming. An overdose of a cough syrup can lead to auditory and visual hallucinations, dilated pupils, body dissociation, slow pulse, impaired motor skills and even death in severe cases. Thus, always ensure that you use your syrup as prescribed by your doctor or pharmacist.

Treat the underlying cause

A cough is a natural reflex and hence suppressing it without first diagnosing its root cause can lead to adverse effects.  However, severe coughs can greatly impair your comfort and productivity. Since most persistent coughs are underlying symptoms of infections, it is always prudent that you focus your treatment on the root cause of your cough. You should consult your physician to determine the root cause of your problem. By treating the root cause of your problem and using the right cough syrup, you will be able stop your cough and start enjoying your life again.


Photo courtesy of: Stewart Butterfield