The Great Cough Debate: How Do I Treat It?


Each year – especially during cold and flu season – millions of people head to the doctor to address their bothersome cough symptoms. We’ve all been there – the sore, scratchy throat, the dry tickle that keeps you awake half the night and the congested cough that makes everyone nearby want to take cover. What’s a sick person to do?

Dr. Drew Byers, Primary Care Physician at St. Elizabeth Physicians, weighs in with some quick and simple guidelines for cold and flu season.

“As a general rule, I like to discuss with patients what may be causing their cough and treat the underlying issue instead of the cough itself,” says Dr. Byers. “Many over-the-counter medications have not shown to be any more effective in treating a cough than a placebo.”

When is it time to see a doctor for your cough?

For patients miserable with a cough during cold and flu season, it can be tricky to know when to seek medical help.

As a rule of thumb, if you or a loved one are having difficulty catching your breath while coughing, it’s time to seek urgent medical attention. However, if your cough isn’t constant and you aren’t struggling to take a breath, Dr. Byers suggests hanging in there for a few days –within reason.

“It’s generally safe to “ride out” a cold for the first few days, anticipating that it will improve,” says Dr. Byers. “However, if you’re prone to getting sick, already in poor health, or concerned that it might be something more than a cold, I recommend following up with your doctor quickly.”

At-home cough remedies

Effective at-home remedies include throat-soothers like warm tea, soup, honey or lozenges. Over-the-counter cough medicines have shown to help very little in recent studies – with accompanying unpleasant side effects like constipation, sleepiness, and nausea.

Dr. Byers also encourages patients with a cough to look at the bigger picture: Your cough is trying to help you. It’s important to determine the underlying cause of the cough versus addressing the cough itself.

“Generally, a cough is a mechanism your body uses to help you get better,” says Dr. Byers. “Your cough could be preventing drainage in an upper respiratory infection from getting into your chest, or it could be clearing your lungs of mucus.”

Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and reach for hot tea instead of over-the-counter medicine. Hopefully your cough will be a distant memory soon.

St. Elizabeth: Your cold and flu healthcare partner

If you need to see a physician for your cough, cold or flu symptoms, St. Elizabeth is here for you. To schedule an appointment with a primary care physician at St. Elizabeth Healthcare, please call 800-797-7300. Dr. Byers is a Primary Care Physician at Dry Ridge Primary Care. For appointments, please call 800-797-7300.