Published November 14, 2007 by
A child with uncontrollable coughing makes a parent feel helpless. A chronic cough causes everyone in the family to lose sleep. And too often it seems like cough medicines just don’t do any good, or the ingredients in that get well gift just don't do the trick.
Coughing is a very important reflex. It’s the body’s way of clearing dust and mucous from the airways. If we don’t cough, or we take medicines that suppress coughing, there’s an increased risk of getting pneumonia. All the mucous, bacteria, and other material will remain in our lungs, forming a perfect place for an infection to start.
A sneeze cleans out dust and other particles that may irritate the sensitive lining of the nose and sinuses. Like coughing, sneezing is a reflex that can’t be controlled.
When your child coughs, she is clearing her lungs. The material she brings up has to go somewhere. Usually the coughing itself will bring the material up as far as the trachea [the tube that carries air to the lungs] and the esophagus [the tube that carries food to the stomach] separate if she can’t spit out the mucous [which most children can’t do], she will either swallow it or more likely, gag on it. This explains why children will sometimes vomit after a coughing spell. Since they can’t get rid of the mucous, they gag and vomit it out. Unfortunately, they usually vomit a lot more than just the mucous. Vomiting after coughing is not abnormal and should not cause you concern.
There are many cough medicines available in the drugstore. Some can be bought without a prescription, but the stronger ones require the approval of a doctor. There are two major drugs that suppress coughing. One is dextromethorphan- the over the counter cough medicines that end with the letters ‘DM' contain dextromethorphan. The other effective cough suppressant is codeine. Cough medicines that contain codeine or one of its derivatives usually require a prescription.
You may wonder when you should try to suppress your child’s cough. There are only two situations. The first is when her cough is “dry and hacking.” Because it’s not bringing up anything and not helping to clear out her lungs, this type of cough serves no useful purpose. The second is when the cough is so severe that it interferes with her sleep. Otherwise, it’s better that she cough.
A chronic cough may be a sign of "low grade" asthma. If your child coughs without any sign of illness and if there’s a family history of allergies or asthma, it’s worthwhile to discuss this with your doctor.
Coughing may last a long time after a viral illness [sometimes up to three months] and still not necessarily be a cause for concern. If your child is acting normal and doing all the “normal kid things,” you probably don’t need to worry. However, if your child shows other symptoms in conjunction with coughing or just doesn’t seem to be “bouncing back” to normal, it’s a good idea to check with her doctor.
Remember that coughing is a sign, not an illness itself. Curing a cough alone doesn’t mean that you have dealt with the underlying illness.