Coughs are valuable weapons in your body's self-defense arsenal.
Their assignment: Quickly expel intruders from your throat and the airways of your lungs when the normal methods of clearing are not adequate. Usually, cilia (tiny, hair-like fibers) that line the bronchial tubes constantly push material out of the lungs and into the throat. If dust, fluid, viruses, bacteria or even tumors cause irritation or partial blockage in any part of this region, your cough reflex takes explosive action.
A cough may be triggered by a tickle of dust or water that goes down the wrong way. Suddenly, the muscles of your throat and chest contract and expel the invader in a rush of air and mucus at speeds approaching 100 mph.
This reflex actually originates in a special cough center in the brain. Nerve endings that line the body's airways react to obstructions by sending signals to the cough center, which fires back an order to the muscles to cough up the offensive substance.
Coughs are almost always symptoms of a larger problem. Coughs coupled with a runny nose or fever point to a respiratory tract infection or more serious disease. Coughs can result from an allergy, an asthma attack, chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the nose) and even side effects of medications (especially those for blood pressure).
There are two basic types of coughs -- productive and nonproductive. Productive coughs bring up mucus, often generated by a bacterial or viral infection, or anything that causes an inflammation reaction in the lungs.
"Lining your bronchial tubes are mucous glands and small hairs called cilia. Normally, the glands secrete a little mucus to help catch debris when you're breathing, and the cilia help brush it all out. But when stimulated by infection, the glands become inflamed and produce extra mucus that is expelled with a productive cough," says George P. Valko, M.D., clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.
But a nonproductive cough -- caused by an irritated throat -- expels little if any mucus. Dry coughs, as they are also sometimes called, are usually chronic and can be caused by asthma, smoking, allergies or congestive heart failure.
It's always best to ask your doctor about medications. But in general, an expectorant cough medicine is used to help thin mucus so it can be cleared more easily from your lungs.
You'll probably want to suppress a dry cough, on the other hand, especially if you're uncomfortable or having trouble sleeping. Unless your cough is caused by asthma -- treatable with an inhaler -- you'll likely need an antitussive cough medication. Those with codeine are generally most effective. But codeine can be addictive and cause side effects such as constipation and drowsiness. Talk to your doctor to find out what medication is right for you.
Whether you take a cough medicine or not, drink plenty of fluids, especially hot ones, to help loosen mucus and keep the airways moist. That's what folk cough remedies from chicken soup to tea with lemon are based on.
And because a cough expels bacteria and viruses, always cover your mouth with a disposable tissue. But remember: Treating the cough doesn't treat the problem behind it. If your cough produces blood or persists more than a week, see your doctor.
© 2013 Main Line Health