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What causes a cough?

Coughing is an involuntary response that the body uses to clear up the upper respiratory pathways. Causes of cough include exposure to environmental pollution or allergens, exposure to cigarette smoking, and smoking itself. 

Some diseases cause coughing, such as asthma, acid reflux (that causes heartburn), post-nasal drip, sinusitis, bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, and bronchiectasis (scarring and inflammation in the lungs following an infection). Coughing is often present during infection with the common cold, influenza, or COVID-19.

Effective control of the cough requires that the root problem is diagnosed and treated. Since the body can become habituated to the cough reflex and persist even after the cause is removed, the treatment also needs to desensitize airway nerves.

Although the occasional cough is normal (such as when eating spicy food or changing temperature), a cough that persists indicates a problem. One that lasts less than 3 weeks is considered “acute,” and one that lasts longer than 8 weeks (or 4 weeks in children) is called “chronic.”

How to treat a cough

Your pharmacist or doctor may recommend a syrup for your cough. The choice depends on the type of cough you have; these are generally classified into two: dry/irritative or productive/chesty cough. 

Over-the-counter cough medications can help by either suppressing the body’s urge to cough or by thinning the mucus to make it easier to get rid of. 

This is especially true for those coughs that linger following a cold, flu, or other similar infection and those coughs that are triggered by allergens. However, any associated conditions might need specific treatment (e.g., inhalers for asthma or antacids for acid reflux).

Tussilene is a range of syrups used to treat different kinds of cough. These preparations contain tried and tested ingredients in an affordable format.

Tussilene cough syrups are available in 2 kinds:

  • Dextrometorfano Tussilene contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan used to calm the cough reflex and treat coughs that are not productive. This formula is strawberry flavoured and can be used from 2 years of age.
  • Ambroxol Tussilene contains the mucolytic (breaks down mucus) ambroxol used for chesty coughs and smokers’ coughs. This is strawberry peppermint flavoured and is specially formulated to be used even in children from 1 year up. 


How do I know whether my cough is dry or productive?

A cough that does not produce mucus or phlegm is known as a dry or non-productive cough. This type of cough is sometimes caused by irritants in the air and may be experienced at the end of a common cold or following a productive cough. 

Symptoms or irritating cough include a dry throat or a tickling sensation at the back of the throat and wheezing sounds. Persistent dry cough may lead to shortness of breath. 

A productive cough generates mucus or phlegm in the chest that is expelled up the lungs and into the windpipe during the cough. The cough reflex is used to remove these fluid secretions, and especially if these secretions are thick, the cough may be painful and persistent. 

Often mucus in the nasal passages during a cold or allergy goes back into the throat, where it is expelled by coughing. 

In both cases, when the mouth is not covered, coughing produces air droplets that may travel to and infect other people when there is a contagious illness. 

Can I prevent coughs?

It is difficult to prevent coughing completely, but there are some steps you can take to minimise coughs. If you are aware that some allergens or conditions trigger a cough for you, then you should try to avoid them as much as possible, or wear a surgical mask in such conditions. This may be true for people who work or live in environments where there may be chemicals in the air. 

Washing your hands often, and avoiding touching your face will minimize transmission of infectious disease.

man wearing mask

What should I do after a cough?

Conditions that cause coughing should be investigated and treated. Keeping the air around the throat warm and moist helps to reduce coughing and stop the throat from further irritation. 

Sometimes coughing becomes habitual, and persists long after the irritating factor is gone. A cough suppressant such as Tussilene Dry and Irritating Cough is needed to break this cycle of communication between the airways and the brain.

When should I see a doctor?

Even though most coughs resolve themselves rather soon, a persistent cough that produces harsh sounds, worsens at night, comes in bouts, makes breathing difficult, or increases the breath rate warrants a visit to your doctor. 

Always see a doctor if your cough is accompanied by fever or green phlegm, or if the cough is particularly distressing. 


at the doctor
  1. Chung, K. F., & Pavord, I. D. (2008). Prevalence, pathogenesis, and causes of chronic cough. The Lancet371(9621), 1364–1374.
  2. How to Tell What Type of Cough You Have. (2013, July 11). Health Hearty