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December 08, 2016

Cough and chest congestion: How to clear your lungs

Do you have a nasty cough? Feel like your lungs are full, but not with air? Are you wondering if you should take an over-the-counter drug or let it pass on its own? Do you need to see a doctor? Get the answers to all these questions and more, right here!

What is a cough?

Coughing is the body’s way of trying to eliminate mucus or a foreign substance (e.g. dust) from the lungs. It can also be caused by an irritated throat.

There are two main types of cough: productive and non-productive. A productive cough is one that brings up mucus. It’s also called a “wet” cough. A non-productive cough is also referred to as a “dry” cough, because it does not produce mucus.

A cough can also be “acute” if it lasts less than 3 weeks or “chronic” if it persists longer. 

What is chest congestion? The term refers to extra mucus in the lungs that blocks the airways. This can happen when you have a cold, for example. 

What causes a cough? 

In adults with no other underlying health problems, a cough is usually the symptom of a cold, bronchitis, pneumonia or other respiratory illness. It can also occur when mucus from the nose goes from the throat into the lungs.  

Chronic diseases can also cause a cough. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, which affects mainly smokers), asthma, acid reflux and heart failure are examples of such diseases.  

In rare cases, a cough can be a symptom of a more serious disease, like lung cancer  or a blood clot in the lungs.

When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms, since they could be a warning sign that something more serious is going on:

Shortness of breath
Blood in the mucus
Unexplained weight loss
Fever that lasts more than a week
Weakened immune system due to a disease (e.g., cancer) or treatment (e.g., taking cortisone tablets) 

If you have a chronic disease that causes coughing (for instance, chronic bronchitis, asthma or heart failure) and your cough gets worse, you should consult a health professional.  Your treatment may need to be adjusted. 

How to relieve an acute productive cough 

If you don’t have a chronic health problem or any of the warning signs mentioned above, you probably won’t need antibiotics or any other prescription medication. Coughs associated with a respiratory illness generally do not need medical attention.  Remember that most respiratory infections are caused by viruses, which cannot be cured with antibiotics.

There are several simple measures you can take to find relief from a productive cough. Drinking plenty of fluids, taking a shower or bath (to breathe in the warm, moist air) and keeping the humidity level in your home (especially in your bedroom) at 50% can help you get rid of excess mucus by keeping the respiratory tract nice and moist.  

If you find your cough too disruptive, you can always consider taking an over-the-counter drug.  (But again, make sure you have none of the warning signs listed here). Two categories of cough medicine are available without a prescription: cough suppressants to control the coughing and expectorants. 

Expectorants thin out the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to clear it out. All over-the-counter expectorants contain the same active ingredient: guaifenesin. If you want to buy this type of product, look for words like “expectorant,” “mucus and phlegm,” or “cough and chest congestion” on the product packaging. Some products provide longer lasting relief due to their extended-release formula.

Guaifenesin is sold as pills or syrups, either as a single-ingredient formulation or in combination with other medicinal ingredients (e.g. all-in-one products). All-in-one products are made to ease several symptoms associated with a cold or the flu.  Always follow the instructions and warnings indicated on the label.

A quick word about all-in-one products: make sure you actually need all the ingredients they contain. Otherwise, you’re just giving your body medicine it does not need. Plus, do not take multiple products that contain the same active ingredient (e.g. acetaminophen), since you could get an excessive dose.  

Keep in mind that a productive cough is a good thing: it’s how the body gets rid of extra mucus in the airways. So you don’t need to stop it. In fact, unless recommended by a medical professional, try to avoid cough suppressing drugs.

Pharmacy services

With the wide selection of cough medicines available today, it’s not always easy to select the right one. Feel free to speak with your family pharmacist  to get answers to your questions and help in choosing the best product for your symptoms.

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