When you’re dealing with a cough, that annoying tickle in your throat can crop up at the worst times — like during a Zoom meeting or when you’re trying desperately to get some sleep.
As annoying as a cough can be, it is a healthy response to an irritant in your throat or airways. The irritant stimulates nerves that send a message to your brain; your brain then tells muscles in your chest and abdomen to push air out of your lungs to force the irritant out, says the Mayo Clinic.
Many medical conditions can result in a cough, including the common cold, the flu, allergies, post-nasal drip (when phlegm drips from the back of the nose into the throat), and acid reflux (when stomach acid travels up into the esophagus and irritates the wind pipe).
A cough can also be a symptom of COVID-19, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, if you think you may have COVID-19, be sure to get tested and isolate from others while waiting for the results.
Whatever the cause, coughs can be pretty irritating if you have one (and also pretty irritating to your bed mate or office mate). The good news? “Most coughs disappear within a few weeks, no matter what you do,” says Olveen Carrasquillo, MD, MPH, the chief of the division of internal medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida.
Plus there are a number of things you can do to feel better and breathe easier, at least temporarily, he adds. Below are 10 worth trying, both during the day and at night.
How to Calm Daytime Coughing
If your cough is making it hard to function during the day (or becoming a liability at work), try one of these remedies to help tame the hacking.
1. Take an Expectorant
Over-the-counter (OTC) expectorants (such as Mucinex or Robitussin 12 Hour Cough & Mucus Relief) contain guaifenesin, which thins respiratory secretions in your airways. This can help you cough up excessive mucus more effectively and breathe easier.
2. Reach for a Cough Suppressant
For temporary relief of a dry, hacking cough, try taking an OTC cough medicine that contains dextromethorphan, which blocks the cough reflex.
One caution to keep in mind: Don’t give cough medication to children younger than four, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); from ages 4 to 6, only use cough medicine if it’s recommended by your child's doctor.
3. Sip a Warm Beverage
The warmth of a drink like tea or lemon water can soothe a throat that feels raw or sore from coughing. Warm fluids also help to loosen mucus, making it easier to cough it up. If you add a few drops of honey, you have a natural cough suppressant (for more on that, see below).
4. Step Up Your Fluid Intake
Getting enough fluid is always a good idea, and even more so when you have a cold. Staying well-hydrated will help thin mucus and, in turn, make coughs more productive. Water is ideal, but soothing chicken soup counts, too.
5. Suck on Hard Candy
Cough drops are good for soothing a dry, irritated throat and reducing that constant urge to cough. No lozenges? No worries. Any hard candy will promote saliva production and provide the moisture you need to relieve a dry cough, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
How to Quell a Nighttime Cough
We all know sleep is the best medicine, especially when it comes to getting over a cold. If a nagging cough is keeping you awake all night, try these nighttime remedies to help you drift off.
1. Consider a Cough Medicine Formulated for Nighttime Use
These versions often include an antihistamine, which can make you drowsy. That's not ideal during the day, but can be beneficial at night if you have a dry cough that is keeping you awake.
If you have a productive, or wet, cough (in which you are coughing up mucus), however, you may be better off with an expectorant both day and night. The drying effect of an antihistamine can make mucus thicker and harder to clear from the airways, which could make your cough worse, says the American Academy of Family Physicians.
2. Have Some Honey
Adding honey to a cup of tea is a time-honored way soothe an irritated throat and calm a cough. And, there is some science to back up the idea: A review study published in April 2021 in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine found that honey was superior to OTC medications at reducing the frequency and severity of coughing due to upper respiratory tract infections.
You can try taking a teaspoon or two of honey at bedtime, either on its own or mixed into a cup of tea or warm water. (Do not give infants under one year honey; it will not help with symptoms and can cause a sickness called infant botulism, cautions the AAP.)
3. Zap Your Cough With a Vaporizer
Placing a cool-mist vaporizer or a humidifier right next to your bed can help keep your airway passages moist and reduce the likelihood that a dry, hacking cough will wake you up. It will also help a productive cough by thinning mucus and making it easier to cough up.
(A vaporizer can also provide daytime cough relief, so you may also want to set one up wherever you spend the most time, such as in your office or family room.)
4. Use an Extra Pillow — or Two
Coughs often worsen at night because, thanks to gravity, lying down causes mucus to pool in your throat, rather than drain. This triggers the coughing reflex as a means of moving that mucus out.
Elevating your head can help counteract the problem. Sleeping this way also helps alleviate GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which can cause nighttime coughing.
5. Gargle With Salt Water
To start the night off with a clear throat, try gargling with a warm saltwater solution. This can lessen coughing by calming throat irritation, loosening thick mucus, and removing irritants from the throat.
Simply mix ½ teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of warm water, gargle for as long as you can, then spit out the solution.
Know When to See Your Doctor
If you just can’t shake your cough after a few weeks or you’re experiencing wheezing, fever, shortness of breath, or persistent pain or pressure in your chest, see your doctor, says Dr. Carrasquillo. These are signs that it could be something more serious, such as chronic sinusitis, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, or even heart issues.
Additional reporting by Julia Califano.