In Defense of Cough

Written by Nelson Branco MD


There are always coughing kids, but this time of year the number of visits to pediatricians for “cough” begin to outnumber almost everything else. Once the kids have been back in school for a few weeks, and they’ve had a chance to cough and sneeze all over each other, the cough season has begun.

Most parents worry that their child might have asthma, pneumonia or some other infection causing the cough. Your doctor will be running through a much longer list of possible reasons for cough – pneumonia, wheezing, croup, asthma, bronchitis, congestive heart failure, viral upper respiratory illness, bronchiolitis, reflux, post nasal drip due to allergies or sinus infection, habit cough, aspirated foreign body and a few others. It usually takes only a few questions to narrow down the possibilities, but sometimes it takes a bit more work, especially if the cough has been going on for some time or has not responded to treatment.

Obviously, many of these causes will have a specific treatment – antibiotics for pneumonia or sinusitis, steroids and albuterol for asthma, antihistamines or nasal steroids for allergies, antacids for acid reflux. But how about if your child has a viral illness? These illnesses – upper respiratory infections (the common cold), tracheitis, bronchitis, and bronchiolitis, are usually self-limited and don’t need any specific treatment.

Cough is a protective reflex that keeps the lungs clear of mucous, irritants and infection. Cough is usually involuntary, and it’s difficult to suppress a cough when your brain says it’s necessary. Cough can interrupt sleep, be disruptive at school or irritating to your child, and cough is a very efficient way to pass infections to others (Cover That Cough!). So, given all this, why don’t we generally prescribe cough suppressants? The first reason is that most don’t work. Even codeine, when studied in large groups of children, doesn’t work well at suppressing cough. Over-the-counter medications don’t work too well either, though there are many available and lots of people use them.

Another reason not to suppress all coughing is to prevent pneumonia or lung infection. Cough is a helpful reflex – it keeps mucus from the throat and upper airway out of the lung, and helps move mucus up and out of the lung. Most of this mucus is swallowed; this is fine. The lungs are lined with cells that have tiny hair-like projections called cilia. These cilia all beat in one direction to help move mucus and debris out of the lungs, like an escalator. The cough helps move things along even faster.

One of the biggest problem with cough is that it can interrupt sleep. Because sleep and rest is important to help fight off any virus or other infection, we often recommend treatments that will help with sleep. A teaspoon of honey given at bedtime has been proven to be just as effective as an over the counter cough syrup. You can also use herbal tea with lemon and honey, and vaporizers/humidifiers, steamy bathrooms, and saline nose drops can help to thin the mucous so that it’s easier to cough up.

Remember – not all cough is bad. Sometimes cough is a sign that there is a problem that you need to talk to your doctor about. Most of the time, though, cough is just doing its job to keep the lungs clean. Teach your kids to wash their hands frequently, cough into their elbow instead of onto surfaces or their hand, make sure to get a flu shot and, as much as possible, avoid people who are obviously sick.


Dr. Branco is a practicing pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area and is very active with the local chapter of the AAP.