There’s more than one kind of cough, and more than one way to deal with it

What is a cough?

There’s no big story behind the cough. It’s simply one way to keep our throat and airways clean and clear. Usually the culprit is a stray piece of dust, or maybe just a reflex action when you swallow without chewing properly. One spell of coughing usually takes care of that. The problem arises when you can’t stop coughing.

This is not only annoying, it could also be a sign that something is wrong with your body. A persistent cough is usually of two types: productive, and dry.

When there is an excess of mucus blocking our airways, it is important that we cough it all out. This is called a productive cough and is usually caused by microbial infections and smoking.

A dry cough may not involve spitting out yucky yellow blobs (called sputum), but continuous dry hacking coughs can still knock the breath out of us. These usually develop during the end of a bad cold, during allergies, or on exposure to pollutants.

Both these kind of coughs are dealt with differently.

What are the types of cough medicines?

Cough syrups are generally of two kinds: suppressants and expectorants.

Suppressants: Like the name suggests, they aim to suppress your cough. This is usually prescribed only in case of persistent dry coughs, since in most cases a cough is a necessary response to an irritant.

Cough suppressants usually contain a chemical which blocks the reflex to cough. In other words our urge to cough is reduced. Some examples of suppressants are codeine, and dextromethorphan.

Expectorants: This kind of cough medicine is aimed at getting us some relief from productive coughs. When there is mucus blocking our throat, we need to get it out. So suppressing cough is not the answer.

Expectorants help out by thinning the mucus so it is easier to cough out. Just drinking lots of water can do the same but in serious cases, you may be asked by your doctor to take an expectorant. Expectorants also help this watered down mucus travel upward along our throat. A common example is guaiphenesin.

Cough drops/ lozenges: These candy-like tablets are chewed till they dissolve in our mouth and soothe and lubricate our throat and airways. This sometimes gives us some relief from coughing.

Vapour rubs: Rubbing the white balm on our chest and back also has a soothing effect. This is said to be because of the vapours that are released from the balm that break down the obstructions in our lungs and throat.

Though many types of suppressants, expectorants and other medicines may be available over the counter in pharmacies, many have dangerous side-effects. So it is important that we always consult a medical expert before taking them ourselves.

nandita.j@thehindu.co.in