Cough cough. Ahem. Hack hack hack.

A cough can be irritating and can sound quite awful, but it is usually not a sign of a serious condition. In fact, coughing is your body's way of trying to get rid of an irritating substance in your airways, throat, and lungs. It's a natural and healthy reflex that helps your body heal and protect itself. A cough can be brought on by substances that irritate your airways, such as smoke, pollen, or certain medications. It can also be brought on by medical conditions, such as the common cold, as your body clears out the mucus caused by the infection.

Many people choose to treat their cough at home. But what type of over-the-counter (non-prescription) medication should you use for your cough? This depends on what type of cough you have.

For dry coughs that produce minimal phlegm, try a cough suppressant. Cough suppressants do exactly what they sound like - they quiet a cough. They are also known as antitussives. An example of an over-the-counter cough suppressant is dextromethorphan.

For phlegmy coughs that produce mucus (chest congestion), an expectorant can loosen or thin mucus to make it easier to cough it up and clear the airways. Guaifenesin is an expectorant you can get over the counter.

You can also drink water to help ease a cough. Help keep your airways moist by adding water to the air with a vapourizer, a cool-mist humidifier, or a steamy shower. Sucking on cough drops or sugarless hard candies can also help relieve a dry cough.

Coughing is usually not a sign of anything too serious. However, there are certain circumstances when you should talk to your doctor:

  • if your cough persists or worsens
  • if you are experiencing other symptoms such as fever, headache, or rash
  • if you have an ongoing (chronic) cough due to smoking or medical conditions such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • if your cough is accompanied by wheezing (a whistling noise coming from your chest)

Cough medication is not recommended for children under 6 years old. Talk to your pharmacist for advice on what to do for your child's cough.