If you’ve ever interrupted a work meeting or quiet lecture with a sudden coughing fit, you know firsthand how inconvenient it can be, especially if you don’t know how to stop the cough in its tracks. Whether you’ve inhaled some allergen in the air or you’re struggling with asthma, uncontrollable coughing fits may be as uncomfortable as they are embarrassing. Find out how to stop coughing attacks when they erupt and what causes them in the first place.Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.
Sudden Cough Attack CausesFrom environmental triggers to chronic respiratory diseases, there are many possible causes for sudden cough attacks. Accompanying symptoms with your cough like fever or chills may indicate a bacterial infection, while excess mucus may signal a viral infection. Here are the most common causes of sudden cough attacks:
- Chronic respiratory diseases: Asthma and bronchitis are obstructive chronic respiratory diseases in which inflammation of the airways leads to difficulty in clearing mucus from the respiratory tract
- Viral infections: The common cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are all examples of viruses that can cause a cough attack
- Bacterial infections: Often accompanied by high fever, chills, and difficulty breathing, pertussis is an example of a bacterial infection that may cause a coughing fit
- Allergies: Seasonal allergies that cause runny nose may also cause cough attacks
- Blood pressure drugs: Some medications prescribed to treat high blood pressure (ACE inhibitors) may irritate the respiratory tract1
- Food or foreign substance: The coughing mechanism is designed to clear the respiratory tract of a foreign invader, so if there is food or some other substance or object blocking the airway, the body may try to clear it out through coughing
Cough Attacks in PublicExperiencing a cough attack in public can be unsettling. Whether you’re in the middle of a meeting at work or in the third row at your cousin’s wedding, a cough attack often strikes when you’re least prepared and it doesn’t always go away quickly. Before we cover some tips on how to calm coughing with medication and other remedies, here are some immediate things you can do when coughing happens in a public space:
- Excuse yourself: You may not want to miss the important details of your meeting or your cousin’s kiss at the altar, but finding a private space may be the easiest way to let your cough run its course without worrying about upsetting the people around you.
- Hold your breath: Try breathing slowly through your nose and then holding your breath with a closed mouth to stop the coughing reflex.
- Drink water: If you have water, take a sip. This is even better if you have access to hot water.
- Eat candy: We’re not talking about a chocolate bar. If you have a hard candy or a lozenge, sucking on it may help soothe your throat and control the cough.
Coughing at SchoolIf your child complains of having cough attacks at school, you may have to rule out conditions like allergies or infections to give them the support they need. Your child may be suffering from allergies if they also experience wheezing, a tight chest, and trouble breathing. If they have a fever and fatigue, then an infection may be the culprit. If you suspect your child is vaping, talk to them about the dangers of this increasingly popular trend amongst teens.2 In addition to potentially triggering your child’s cough attacks, vaping can also lead to lung damage and nicotine addiction.
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Tips for Calming Your CoughCough attacks happen to the best of us (often at the worst times), but there are precautions you can take to make them less frequent. Here are some tips for calming your cough if attacks tend to happen more often than you’d like:
- Avoid triggers: One of the best things you can do for a cough attack is avoid one altogether. Take note of triggers that make you cough, from pollen and mold to dust and smoke. This may be a good way to find out if you have allergies you didn’t know about.
- Drink water with honey: Staying hydrated with hot water is great, but adding honey to the mix is even better because honey is an effective cough suppressant.3
- Take a steamy bath or shower: The steam from a bath or shower may help ease coughing by adding moisture to the air.
- Use a humidifier: Similarly, a humidifier can add moisture to dry air, which can be a cough trigger for many people. Humidifiers improve the overall air quality in your home, which may also be a help for a persistent cough.
- Quit smoking: Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your cough, but it also harms nearly every organ in the body and is associated with a number of diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, and diabetes.4 If you suffer from coughing spells, you may have to give up this habit.
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