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Woman happy healthy

Persistent coughing: Symptoms, causes & remedies

23 Nov 2022 • 18 min read

If you, your partner, or your kids are suffering from sleepless nights because of an uncontrollable cough, or you’ve developed a cough that doesn’t seem to want to go away, don’t despair - there are lots of things you can do.

From the potential reasons behind your irritating cough, to what might help you ease it, keep reading to find out more about persistent coughs and home remedies for coughs.

What is persistent coughing?

Coughing is your body’s way of clearing your airways and lungs of any mucus or bacteria that might be irritating them.1

Persistent coughing is when you have a continuous cough that you can’t seem to shift, even after you’ve cleared your throat or coughed a few times.2  This form of coughing can happen at any time of day or night and there are many reasons why you might be struck with a bout of coughing - identifying exactly what’s causing yours is key to treating it.

9 continuous cough causes

In most cases, coughing can be attributed to: 
  1. An infection
    If you’ve got a cold, the flu, or a respiratory infection, such as bronchitis, coughing is a common symptom, because your airways are partially or fully blocked up with mucus and other fluid.
  2. Asthma
    As asthma can restrict the airways and make them inflamed, it’s not unusual to develop a dry cough.4 
  3. Indigestion
    Coughing, along with a burning sensation in the chest, is a common symptom of heartburn.
  4. An allergy
    Coughing is a primary symptom of various allergies, especially dust allergies, hay fever, or pet allergies.6 
  5. Smoking
    Long-term smokers often have a persistent, chesty cough that should slowly go away when they quit.
  6. Postnasal drip (or upper airway cough syndrome)
    Postnasal drip is caused by nose mucus dripping down the throat, which tickles the nerves of the nasopharynx, triggering a cough. In some cases, it can be caused by having a blocked nose, but it can also be caused by a viral upper respiratory infection.
  7. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
    GERD happens when some of our stomach contents travel to the oesophagus instead of the intestine, which can lead to heartburn.9 In some instances, the acid can irritate the lower oesophagus, so much so, it causes a cough. Up to a third of people with GERD experience a cough, laryngitis, or unexplained sore throats.10 
  8. Chronic bronchitis
    Chronic bronchitis can be caused by persistent inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which can also lead to excess mucus production.11 It is mainly caused by tobacco or long-term exposure to high levels of industrial air pollutants and it’s not uncommon for the inflammation to lead to people experiencing a chronic cough.
  9. Angiotensin-converting–enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
    Used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure, ACE inhibitors, such as enalapril (Available under the brand name: Vasotec or can be brought as a generic drug), and lisinopril (Brand name: Prinivil, Zestril) may cause a persistent cough in around 20% of people who take them.12

Why do I cough at night?

Persistent coughing can be really annoying, especially if it’s happening at night. Night coughs, especially uncontrollable coughing at night, aren’t fun and can mean you, and your household, wind up getting very little sleep because of it. But why are night coughs so common?

One of the main reasons why nighttime coughs happen is because you’re lying down. All the mucus and phlegm that’s in your body begins to gather in one place, particularly at the back of the throat.13  This leads to the body instinctively coughing to try and shift it.

One way to try and solve the issue is to sleep so that you aren’t completely horizontal. Try popping an extra pillow behind you to prop you up a bit.14

How to stop coughing

While most coughs usually clear up on their own within a few weeks, you might be able to speed them along. Why not consider: 
  • Purchasing a humidifier 
The dry, hot air that comes out of heaters can cause havoc with your airways if you have a cough. Make sure the air around you is kept moist by buying a humidifier (also known as an air vapouriser), which works by pumping a thin mist around the room.15
  • Drinking hot honey and lemon
Try sipping on some hot honey and lemon, especially if you have a cough at night. Honey has antibacterial properties and may help a sore throat, while lemon juice is a great source of Vitamin C.16

Alternatively, try taking a spoonful of manuka honey every day or sucking on lozenges that contain honey or bee pollen.17
  • Cleaning your bedroom
Dust mites and pet hair will definitely increase the likelihood of coughing if it’s being caused by an allergy.18  To lower the risk, make sure you clean regularly, which includes changing your bedding every one to two weeks, and not letting your pets sleep in the same room as you. 
  • Breathing through your nose
When you’re trying to fall asleep, make sure you inhale and exhale through your nose (if it’s not blocked) instead of your mouth. This will put less stress on your throat if it’s sore and help keep it moist if you have a dry cough.19
  • Sucking on throat lozenges or cough drops
Most throat/cough products contain menthol, which can help temporarily relieve coughs by helping open up the airways. Menthol acts as a mild anaesthetic and can reduce the need to cough.20 
  • Having a spoonful of honey
Studies have shown honey is more effective than over-the-counter cough medications at relieving coughs, especially in children.21  But, it is important to remember that children under the age of 1 should not consume honey.22
  • Taking expectorant medication
Expectorants are medications or natural ingredients that are designed to clear mucus from the airways.23  Available over the counter, they have been proven in clinical studies to decrease secretions, which could reduce coughing levels.23 
  • Trying the stop-cough exercise
This exercise is designed to help reduce an over-sensitive cough reflex. If you can reduce the airflow and keep the air around your throat warm and moist, it’s often possible to stop coughing early.24
So, if you’re wondering how to get rid of a cough quickly, try the following tickly cough remedy:24

1. At the first sign of a tickle or as soon as you cough, or feel you are about to cough, put your hand over your mouth. 
2. Swallow once.
3. Hold your breath for a few seconds. When you start breathing again take slow, gentle breaths for at least 30 seconds while keeping your hand over your mouth 
4. Tell yourself you are not going to cough.
5. Finally, take a smooth, normal-sized breath through your nose and take your hand away from your mouth.
6. If you still feel a tickle in your throat, repeat the exercise from the beginning until the tickle has subsided.

6 home remedies for coughs

Have you tried all the tactics above and are looking for something else to try? Or perhaps you prefer to try home remedies before anything else?

Give these home remedies for coughs a go:

  1. Drink plenty of fluids
    Drinking fluids, especially water and warm drinks, such as chicken soup and tea, is a good home remedy for a cough. Coughs are sometimes caused by dehydration, so upping your fluid intake can certainly help.

    What’s more, fluids can help your immune system fight off the source of the infection or virus that may be causing your cough and soothe sore throats. 
  2. Gargle some water
    According to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, gargling water weakened the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections and prevented infections from happening in the first place.
     
    Meanwhile, a pilot study published in Scientific Reports in 2019 stated that gargling with warm salt water (along with nasal irrigation) helped reduce cold symptoms and reduced the duration of symptoms, such as coughs. 
  3. Have some honey
    Eat a spoonful of it or stir it into your hot drinks. And, if you are following home remedy number 1 and drinking more fluids, then adding some honey to your drinks will give them an additional cough-fighting boost. 
  4. Suck on lozenges or hard sweets
    It can help your mouth to produce more saliva, which can keep your throat moist and prevent it from becoming too dry. Herbal lozenges that contain zinc, Vitamin C and echinacea are reportedly particularly effective at helping ease coughs.20 
  5. Elevating yourself as you sleep
    As we mentioned above, many people frequently find themselves coughing at night because lying horizontally allows mucus to flow more freely to the back of the throat and, consequently, irritate it. When you go to bed, try propping yourself up with an extra pillow.14 
  6. Get a good night’s sleep (cough permitting)
    As simple as it sounds, going to bed early and allowing yourself to fall asleep without any distractions around you (e.g., the TV’s turned off and you’re not on your phone) is one of the best things you can do.

    Our body repairs and rejuvenates while we’re asleep, which is why getting a good night’s rest is so important for our overall health, as well as tackling a constant cough.30

I’ve tried all these methods – what else can I do?

If you’re unable to conquer your coughing or your cough has been around for longer than three weeks, consider seeing your GP for help and advice – they may also be able to prescribe you cough medication and help you get to the bottom of the cause.

Note that coughing accompanied by a high fever, vomiting, bloody phlegm or breathing difficulties can be a sign of a much more serious health condition. Seek medical attention immediately if you or your children experience more than one of these symptoms.

Takeaway

Having a persistent dry cough, persistent tickly cough, continuous dry cough or a nighttime cough, can be really irritating and painful if you’ve had it for a while. However, there are lots of things you can do to try and tackle coughs, regardless of what’s causing them.

Keep a close eye on your cough, and if it seems to be getting worse, not responding to the remedies you are trying or you are developing other symptoms as well as your cough, speak to your GP.

Sources

1.       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9244241/

2.       https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/lungs-and-airways/cough

3.       https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/

4.       https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/asthma/symptoms/

5.       https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heartburn-and-acid-reflux/

6.       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6942543/

7.       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19813055/

8.       https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/post-nasal-drip

9.       https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults

10.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4865789/

11.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482437/

12.    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8862965/

13.    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/24745332.2021.1979904?needAccess=true

14.    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2021.544826/full

15.    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29988934/

16.    https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/

17.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837971/

18.    https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/19/14/8752

19.    https://www.uhd.nhs.uk/uploads/about/docs/our_publications/patient_information_leaflets/Respiratory_therapy/Guide-to-cough-control.pdf

20.    https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sore-throat/

21.    https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/honey-better-than-usual-care-for-easing-respiratory-symptoms-especially-cough/

22.    https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/weaning-and-feeding/foods-to-avoid-giving-babies-and-young-children/

23.    https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/expectorant

24.    https://www.royalberkshire.nhs.uk/media/4mtpafdw/stop-cough-exercise_jan20.pdf

25.    https://www.hey.nhs.uk/patient-leaflet/help-chronic-cough/

26.    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16242593/

27.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6355924/ 

28.    https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/130/3/465/30142/Effect-of-Honey-on-Nocturnal-Cough-and-Sleep?redirectedFrom=fulltext?autologincheck=redirected

29.    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19139325/  

 

Disclaimer

 
bhupesh-panchal

Bhupesh Panchal

Author

Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: April 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
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