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Coughing is a natural reflex action which allows us to get rid of mucus, harmful substances and irritants from our lungs and air passages. Persistent coughing could be caused by infections of the respiratory tract like bronchitis and pneumonia, inflammation of the airways due to allergies or asthma and irritants such as smoke. Cold or flu symptoms such as nasal congestion, sore throat, high temperature and aching muscles often accompany coughing. Cough medication should only be used if the cough is very persistant and not allowing you to sleep at night, because cough prevention could actually prolong your illness as phlegm and irritants will no longer be expelled. Most coughs go away by themselves within a week but if it lasts longer than two weeks or mucus contains blood you should consult your doctor immediately. There are two types of cough - dry cough, which is tickly and very irritating, and chesty cough, which produces phlegm.

A dry cough is often a response to smoking (both active and passive), a dry atmosphere, air pollution or a change in temperature but some develop due to a reaction to certain drugs, asthma or inflammation of the windpipe. Some dry coughs are relieved by sucking throat lozenges containing honey and glycerine and by drinking warm drinks such as honey and water or carob syrup and water. Medicine for dry coughs includes antihistamines and mild narcotics and these help to suppress the coughing reflex action. Antihistamines dry out the mucus secretions and stop coughing. They also reduce nasal secretions and are therefore used to treat colds and flu although they cause slight drowsiness. Mild narcotics act on the brain and reduce the impulses which cause us to cough. The main narcotic used is codeine, but this might cause sedation and when used for long periods of time may result in constipation. Only short courses of narcotics should be taken as a dependency to them could be developed.

Chesty coughs are sometimes called productive coughs because they produce phlegm. If the phlegm is green or yellow you should see a doctor as this indicates an infection. However, if the mucus is clear or white you should only be concerned if it changes color or if you notice blood in it. This kind of cough can be treated at home with a steam bath which will losen phlegm or with drugs such as expectorants, decongestants or bronchodilators. Expectorants loosen the phlegm by stimulating the production of watery secretions in the lungs and are a common ingredient in cough and cold remedies. Mucolytics are often inhaled and they alter the consistency of the phlegm so it becomes less sticky and easier to cough up. Decongestants are usually only recommended when a cough and nasal congestion occur together. These may increase the heart rate and cause insomnia and should not be taken by people with heart problems. Bronchodilators are only used when the coughing is due to asthma and they can take the form of tablets or an inhaler.

Some medicines contain ingredients for both dry and chesty coughs, but only one type of cough can occur at any one time so it is better to use a single preparation. Be careful to choose the right one for your cough or else the symptoms could actually get worse. Alcohol should be avoided while using cough medications and if you are feeling drowsy don't drive or operate heavy machinery. Sugar free medicines are available for diabetics but most of the time normal preparations have no side effects if usage is kept under control. Children and pregnant women should only take cough syrups or, if the cough is severe, antihistamines. Cough remedies should only be taken when absolutely necessary because they can delay the diagnosis of the underlying disorder.