Everything You Need To Know About Your Cough

Cold and flu season is in full swing in San Francisco right now, which means the odds are good that you -- or someone you know -- has a cough.

Because coughs are one of the leading reasons why patients come to see us in the winter months, we thought we’d take a minute to highlight what you need to know about this common symptom.

1. Most coughs don’t require an antibiotic.

            There’s a common misconception that patients with productive coughs require antibiotics.  But that’s simply not true!  Most patients with productive coughs have bronchitis, which is a productive cough that lasts anywhere from 5 days to 3 weeks.  In otherwise healthy patients who have a normal heart rate, a normal respiratory rate, a normal temperature and a normal oxygen saturation, antibiotics aren’t indicated, because these coughs are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

             If you have a cough, there are other medications we can prescribe to alleviate your symptoms, but antibiotics aren’t recommended because they’re ineffective against viruses, they cause unnecessary complications, and they can increase the risk of developing antibiotic resistance.

2.  Certain triggers make coughs worse.

             If you have a cough, be mindful that certain triggers can make your symptoms worse.  Cold, dry air will make you cough more because it irritates your airway, which is already hypersensitive due to inflammation.  Lying flat at night will also make you cough more, because mucus pools in your airway and in the back of your throat, triggering your cough reflex.  Avoid second hand cigarette smoke, too, because it will irritate your airway and exacerbate your cough.

3. There are lots of non-prescription cough suppressants!

             If you have a cough, there’s good news!  A lot of solutions are within your reach, and don’t require a prescription.  Sucking on a cough lozenge will help lubricate your airway.   Lozenges that contain menthol are particularly helpful, because menthol is a mild topical anesthetic that numbs your cough reflex.  

At night, elevating the head of your bed will help you cough less, too.  

Taking a hot shower before bed or using a humidifier will help hydrate your airway, which minimizes the irritation that causes you to cough.  

Honey has been shown to be an effective cough suppressant, too -- equally as effective as over-the-counter pharmaceutical cough suppressants.  Taking a few teaspoons every few hours will help alleviate your symptoms and, when taken just before bed, will help you get better sleep!  (Note: avoid giving honey to children younger than 12 months old.)


If you have a cough with other symptoms (including fever, chest pain or shortness of breath), or a cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks, please book an appointment online or simply walk into any of our 6 locations so we can take care of you!

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on MSNBC.com. She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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