Coughing? When you might want to skip over-the-counter medicine, experts say

(NEXSTAR) With so many viruses and even bacteria coming this time of year, there’s a good chance you or someone in your household has fallen victim to an illness recently. You may even be among the unlucky ones who experience a chronic cough.

Before you take a cough drop or a dose of cough medicine, you may want to consider all of your options.

Even if a cough is annoying or even painful, sometimes it has a purpose. A cough is your body’s reaction to something that irritates your throat or airways, the Mayo Clinic explains.

The main viruses that are currently spreading are COVID, flu, and RSV that can cause you to cough. Other infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, can cause a chronic cough, as can other diseases and conditions. There are several different types of cough, the Cleveland Clinic explains: chronic cough, which can start suddenly and last for weeks; subacute cough that lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after infection; chronic cough, which lasts more than two months; and persistent cough, or chronic cough that does not respond to treatment.

The type of cough you experience will influence the right treatment for you. For example, if your cough is caused by an infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

But, according to health experts, an over-the-counter drug may not always be worth it.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a spoonful of honey can work just like cough syrups or medicines. Doctors also warn that over-the-counter products often don’t contain enough of the necessary drugs to be effective.

It may also be good to let the cough run its course. Kaiser Permanente says you shouldn’t stop a productive cough, which produces mucus or phlegm, because these are often beneficial. Suppressing coughing can lead to pneumonia and lung damage in some cases, explains Dr. Harold Farber, a pediatric pulmonologist at Texas Childrens Hospital.

This may be true of children as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving children under 4 over-the-counter cold or cough medicines. The Pediatrician explained that Dr. Pamela Phillips in a Cedars Sinai blog post that these drugs can cause sedation, irritability, and behavioral changes that likely outweigh any potential benefits.

So what can you do instead?

The Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Health recommend staying hydrated, especially if you have a productive cough with mucus and phlegm. If you experience a sore throat along with coughing, you can try drinking tea or warm water with honey or lemon juice; gargle with hot salt water; sucking on a cough drop (which won’t affect your cough, Kaiser Permanente warns), or hard candy; spend time in moist air (such as a hot shower); and avoiding smoke or tobacco use. When sleeping, doctors recommend raising your head.

You can also continue to use cough medicine. If you decide to take an over-the-counter product, Kaiser Permanente recommends avoiding those that treat multiple symptoms. Instead, try to treat each symptom separately.

For a productive cough, you can try an expectorant, which works to thin the mucus. If you have a dry cough that keeps you up at night, Kaiser Permanente recommends a suppressant but again cautions against stopping excessive coughing, as coughing clears mucus from the lungs and helps prevent bacterial infections. Some of these products may help you sleep, something you may not be able to get at the expense of your cough.

If you think a product works well, it probably won’t hurt you, although you may be paying for a placebo effect instead of a proven cure, says Harvard Health. Before taking an over-the-counter product, be sure to read the label.

If an over-the-counter product doesn’t help, experts recommend talking to your doctor. You should also seek medical attention if you are breathing; have a fever that lasts more than a day or two, or a fever of more than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit; trembling; or sputum that is yellow, green, or blood, explains the Cleveland Clinic. If you feel like you’re choking, can’t breathe properly, notice a lot of blood when you cough up, or have severe chest pain, you should seek emergency medical attention.

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