How to Treat a Cough From a Cold or the Flu

How to Treat a Cough From a Cold or the Flu

You can’t cure colds or the flu, but you can relieve the cough and sore throat that sometimes come with them.

Use cough drops or hard candy. Menthol and certain herbal cough drops can slightly numb and soothe your sore throat. But sucking on plain hard candy may work just as well.

Try a teaspoon of honey. This traditional remedy for sore throat may help soothe coughs, too. Try adding a spoonful to your tea, but don’t give honey to kids under 1 year old.

Drink up. Sipping on drinks will keep your throat moist and comfortable. When your throat doesn’t hurt, you may not cough. Just about any drink is OK except alcohol or caffeinated drinks. Those can dry you out. Also avoid orange juice and other citrus drinks if they bother your throat.

Heat up that drink. Sip some warm tea or chicken soup to heat up your airways. Not only will it hydrate you, but the warmth helps break up mucus and makes it easier to cough up.

Use cough medicine. Sometimes you need to cough to get out nasty mucus. But other times you need to calm your cough, like when you want to sleep. Over-the-counter cough medicine can help. Expectorants help you cough up mucus. Cough suppressants reduce your urge to cough. If you’re not sure which kind you need, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Use a decongestant. These over-the-counter meds can help clear your stuffy nose. If postnasal drip is irritating your throat and making you cough, decongestants may help both your throat and cough. Be careful: While cold and cough medicines are fine for adults and older kids, they are not safe for children under age 4.

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Breathe in steam. If a raw, dry throat is making you cough, moisture may help. Try breathing in steam from a hot shower. Or use a humidifier or vaporizer in your room while you sleep. The steam can keep your nose and throat from being too dry and get rid of that back-of-the-throat tickle. The moisture can also ease your breathing and loosen mucus, helping you cough it up.

Avoid dirty air. You know smoke isn’t good for you, but it’s especially bad when you’re sick. It can really irritate your cough. Don’t smoke, and stay away from others who are smoking.

Rest. If you want to get rid of your cold and cough, you need to take it easy. Your body needs energy to fight off the virus. Push yourself too hard, and it will just exhaust you and stress you out. That can make your cold, cough, and sore throat hang around longer.

Gargle with salt water. Does this traditional remedy really work? Studies haven’t shown that it does, but lots of people swear by it. See if it helps you. Mix a teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water and gargle. Do it several times a day.

Eat a frozen treat. Want to cool down a flaming sore throat? Numb the pain with ice pops, sorbet, or ice cream, or suck on ice chips.

Use an over-the-counter painkiller. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help with sore throat pain. Aspirin is fine for adults, but it could be dangerous to children under age 18.

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Try a throat spray or lozenge. Some have a drug that helps soothe and numb the throat. They can give you temporary sore throat relief. Just don’t let children use them unless a doctor says it’s safe.

When to See a Doctor

You don’t need medical care for the average cough or sore throat. You often just need to give your body time to recover. Most are caused by viruses, which antibiotics can’t treat.

But some coughs and sore throats do need help from a doctor. You could be dealing with something more serious.

If you have a cough with any of these symptoms, see a doctor:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood, bloody mucus, or pink foamy mucus
  • Coughing up green, tan, or yellow mucus
  • Fever, chills, or chest pain when you breathe deeply

If you have a sore throat that lasts longer than a week or a sore throat with any of these symptoms, see a doctor:

  • Severe pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Fever over 103 F in adults 
  • Swollen glands
  • White patches on your throat or tonsils
  • Rash

These are signs that it might be a bacterial infection like strep throat, which can be treated with antibiotics. Or it could be another condition, like acid reflux, and you may need other treatments.


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