Can’t Stop Coughing?

January 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm , by

Coughing is probably the worst part about cold and flu season. It itches, and it hurts. It’s embarrassing, like when you’re in the middle of a conversation and you can’t stop. It can disrupt your sleep. It spreads germs anywhere from three to six feet, which isn’t fun for the people around you. It lingers, even after you’re feeling better. And how about this injustice: women are more susceptible to coughing than men because their “cough receptors,” the nerves that line the airway, are more sensitive, says Peter Dicpinigaitis, M.D., a lung specialist and director of the Montefiore Cough Center in New York City. (You can’t pronounce that last name if you have a cough, so we’re going to call him Dr. D for the rest of this blog.)

The average adult catches two to four colds a year, so even if you’ve been following our pre-season advice, you’ve probably suffered (or are suffering) at the hands of a bug by now. We sat down with Dr. D to talk about the most common reason for visits to the doctor this time of year: a wicked cough. Read on for his advice.

See your doctor if it doesn’t go away. Unfortunately the common cold and the cough that comes with it are like mosquito bites and bad hair days, just facts of life. But if your cough persists longer than eight weeks, you should see your doctor because it could be a sign of something else, such as asthma or acid reflux, says Dr. D.

Use a measuring cup or take cough medicine in pill form. “Over-the-counter cough suppressants work great, but a lot of times people aren’t dosing them right,” he says. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 85 percent of caregivers incorrectly measure cough medicine. “It’s because the label will say something like ‘take one teaspoon,’ so people just grab a spoon out of the drawer,” he says. This means most people are overdosing and feeling drowsy, or underdosing and still coughing. Both make it harder for you to rest well and get better. Look for products that come with a mini-measuring cup or try gel tablets, which also bypass the icky-taste problem.

Learn the difference between a virus-caused cough and a bacteria-caused cough. “There’s a huge misconception that if you have a pretty bad cold, antibiotics will just take care of it,” says Dr. D. “But the common cold (and the flu) is caused by a virus.” Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them is bad for two reasons. One, by overexposing bacteria to antibiotics, you give bacteria a chance to mutate and become resistant. Secondly, you need some bacteria, like the kind that help you digest, so taking antibiotics you don’t need can cause upset stomach and (yuck) diarrhea.

Do talk to your doctor about antibiotics if you have these symptoms:
• fever of 102 degrees or more
• sinus pain
• green or yellow mucus
• chest pain (which can be a sign of pneumonia)
• coughing “fits” that leave you exhausted or make you throw up. That can be a sign of pertussis, or whooping cough, which can be serious and has been more prevalent in the past few years.

Photo by AnkitaHart

5 Responses to “Can’t Stop Coughing?”

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