What Causes Coughs & How To Treat Them

Coughing is a reflex the body uses in order to clear the airways of irritants such as mucus, foreign particles, microbes and fluids. Coughs are often a symptom of cold and flu and are not routinely treated with antibiotics. The cough reflex can be both voluntary or involuntary and is usually described as either dry or chesty.

Dry Coughs – No phlegm (mucus) is produced and feels like a constant tickle at the back of the throat. This tickle is due to inflammation and the body misinterprets this as a ‘foreign object’ and tries to expel it from the airways- producing a dry cough.

Chesty Cough – Phlegm (mucus) is produced and each cough is ‘productive’ because the airways are cleared of the mucus. The coughing reflex may feel like it is ‘loosening’ mucus trapped in the chest. The airways and lungs produce mucus in response to allergy or irritation. The mucus aids the removal of any particles trapped in the airways because it can be cough up and cleared.

Causes of Cough

  • Cold or Flu
  • Allergies
  • Smoking
  • Mucus dripping down throat and back of the nose.
  • A side effect of Medication
  • Respiratory infections
  • Heartburn/ acid reflux


Currently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognise that a new continuous dry cough is a symptom. This means, coughing for long periods of time (over 1 hour or having 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours). If you experience this or any of the other listed Coronavirus symptoms (high temperature or loss of taste/smell) then you must stay at home and get a COVID test as soon as possible.
Because, in normal circumstances, an acute cough is usually self-limiting and generally clears up within 3-4 weeks. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an acute cough which resolves in less than 4 weeks wouldn’t have much cause for concern. However, in the current circumstances, it is important to recognise that a new continuous dry cough may be a sign of COVID-19.

Do I need to see my Doctor?

If any of the following symptoms are present, it is important that you seek advice from your Doctor as the medicines available for purchase in a Pharmacy may not be appropriate to help you treat it.

  • Cough has lasted over 4 weeks
  • Mucus is coloured (green or yellowish discolouration)
  • Mucus is blood-stained
  • Cough is worsening

How do I treat my cough?

There is a range of different products available for purchase at Pharmacies. It is important to note is that no product will stop your cough completely. Cough syrups and sweets are generally used to help you cough less or to soothe the throat.

Decongestants and Codeine containing products should not be used to treat coughs and should never be used in children under 6.

  • Children under 6 should rest. They should also drink more fluids. Cough syrups, containing glycerol, can also be used. So what about Home remedies? Home remedies like hot lemon and honey drinks are also suitable for children and adults to soothe the throat. Please note that honey is not safe for children under 1.
  • Cough syrups can contain and a number of different ingredients, it is important to know which ingredient is best suited to treat the type of cough you have.Suppressants (Dextromethorphan and Pholcodine) are used to suppress the cough reflex and are best used for dry coughs. If you have a chesty cough, products containing these types of ingredients will not be suitable as they will prevent you from expelling the trapped mucus in your airways. (Suitable for 12 years and over).
  • Expectorants (Guaifenesin) work by encouraging you to bring up mucus as you cough. This loosens the mucus in your lungs and will help the symptoms of a chesty cough. (Suitable for 12 years and over).
  • Throat Lozenges can also help to soothe the throat and ease the symptoms of sore throat that can occur alongside a cough.

Written by Lauren Tang MPharm (Pharmacist)
GPhC Reg: 2223158

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