Tis the Season of the Cough


As you settle down for a long Winter’s nap, there is nothing more annoying than it being so rudely interrupted by the most common ailment of the season – coughing.

Whether it is you or your kids, coughing can be extremely disruptive but is rarely a sign of something serious. So how do you figure out when to go the doctor, and what to buy at the drug store to help your symptoms?

Coughing’s causes in an otherwise healthy person this time of year can be divided into two main categories based on where in your body the problem lies.

1. An infection in your lungs (viral or bacterial)
2. An infection in your nose (also viral or bacterial), or a combo of both.

Your body coughs usually because there is mucous irritating the airways. The distinction between viral or bacterial is simple, it’s all in the mucus: clear/white = viral process, yellow/green = bacterial. If you have green mucus, you need to see your doctor and get antibiotics. The other 95% of the time you have a VIRUS, and can help the symptoms with over-the-counter medicines while you wait it out. Unfortunately nowadays there are hundreds of choices that are being marketed to you with even more confusing names all in hopes of selling as much as possible.

Cough, cold and flu, decongestants, fever and allergy relief, multi-symptom, etc. are all on the shelves being marketed to you. The names and formulas are vast, but the reality is there are only 3 main types of medicine you need to know about.

If it says “allergy” in the name it has antihistamines and should be avoided in the Winter. Allergies cause coughing in the Spring and Fall, but not in the Winter. I don’t even know why they put them in cough/cold formulas other than to sell you a new combo of something.

“Mucolytics” (commonly Mucinex or other similar brands), claim to thin mucus. They may do this a bit, most people don’t need thinner mucus, they need to slow the production. Lot’s of thin mucus still causes lots of coughing.

Cough suppressants may help slightly, but are not a cure-all. If you are drowning in mucus you will cough, period. The cough suppressant effect of OTC meds are questionable at best.
To target the CAUSE of the cough – decongestants are where it’s at. Whether your cough is from overproduction of mucus from the lungs or more commonly the nose, slowing it will almost cure your cough. Look for “pseudoephedrine” or “phenylephrine” in the ingredients. If you can stop or slow mucus production, your cough magically improves. I personally think the other ingredients are fluff.

So, my cure for the common cold/flu: Ibuprofen for fevers/aches, and simple decongestants for the coughing. Drink lots of fluids, since decongestants can cause constipation and eat lots of healthy colorful fruits and veggies.

Undercover Doc
I am a double-boarded specialist who has worked with patients of all ages in the office, hospital and ER realm for almost two decades. I will be your unbiased source for information that healthcare teams don’t normally discuss with patients due to time of other constraints. From alternative therapies and medico-legal quandaries, to uncovering the mysterious world of medical costs and billing, I’ll focus my articles on topics you don’t see in the mainstream media or health system websites. Stay tuned for my next installment!

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