WEBMD (WKOW) -- Ah, the joys of winter. Eggnog, ice skating ... (cough cough cough).
Constant cough can stop you in your tracks.
"Even a little cough can be debilitating," says Mark Yoder, MD, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Cold and flu season brings on hacking coughs that can leave your chest aching. But colds and flu aren't the only problems that cause coughing. Allergies, asthma, acid reflux, dry air, and smoking are common causes of coughs. Even medications such as certain drugs for high blood pressure and allergies can cause chronic cough.
Most of the time, people can manage their coughs at home by taking over-the-counter medicine and cough lozenges, removing potential allergens, or even just standing in a steamy shower, says Giselle Mosnaim, an allergist and immunologist also at Rush.
Try these five tips to manage your cough at home:
An upper respiratory tract infection like a cold or flu causes postnasal drip. Extra secretions trickle down the back of your throat, irritating it and sometimes causing a cough, Mosnaim says.
Drinking fluids helps to thin out the mucus in postnasal drip, says Kenneth DeVault, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Drinking liquids also helps to keep mucous membranes moist. This is particularly helpful in the winter time when houses tend to be dry, another cause of cough, he says.
Try a menthol cough drop, Yoder suggests. "It numbs the back of the throat and that will tend to decrease the cough reflex."
Drinking warm tea with honey can also soothe the throat. There is some clinical evidence to support this strategy, Yoder says.
A hot shower can help a cough by loosening secretions in the nose. Mosnaim says this steamy strategy can help ease coughs not only from colds, but also from allergies and asthma.
Humidifiers may also help. In a dry home, nasal secretions can become desiccated and uncomfortable, Mosnaim explains. Putting moisture back in the air can help your cough, but be careful not to overdo it.
"The downside is if you don't clean it, (humidifiers) become reservoirs for pumping out fungus and mold into the air and bacteria," says Robert Naclerio, MD, chief of otolaryngology at the University of Chicago.
Perfumes and scented bathroom sprays may seem benign, but for some people they can cause chronic sinus irritation. This leads to chronic cough because of the production of excess mucus, says Alan Weiss, MD, a general internist at the Cleveland Clinic. Take control by avoiding such scented products.
The worst irritant in the air, of course, is smoke. Almost all smokers eventually develop the "smoker's cough." Everyone around the smoker may suffer from some airway irritation. The best solution? Smokers need to stop smoking. (Yoder warns that severe chronic coughs can be a sign of emphysema or lung cancer in smokers, so be sure to see a doctor if you're a smoker with chronic cough.)
When steamy showers, hot teas, and cough drops don't help, you can turn to over-the-counter medicines to ease your cough.
Decongestants: Decongestants relieve nasal congestion by shrinking swollen nasal tissue and reducing mucus production. They dry up mucus in the lungs and open up the airway passages, says Weiss.
Decongestants come in pills, liquids, and nasal spray formulations. Oral decongestants such as pills and liquids can raise blood pressure, so people with hypertension need to be careful with their use, Mosnaim notes. Also, overuse of decongestants can lead to excessive dryness, which can trigger a dry cough.
Nasal sprays, if used for more than three or four days, can lead to rebound congestion, Mosnaim says. It's best to use them for two or three days and then stop.
Cough suppressants and expectorants: If you're coughing so much that your chest hurts and you're getting a bad night's sleep, consider a cough suppressant, such as dextromethorphan (found in Robitussin-DM), says Mosnaim. Yoder recommends using cough suppressants only at night.
Cough expectorants such as guaifenesin (found in Mucinex) are useful when a person has a cough that is thick with phlegm, Mosnaim says. Expectorants help to thin out the mucus so one can more easily cough it up, she notes.
Note: The FDA advises against giving cold and cough medicine to children under age 4. These common over-the-counter drugs can cause serious side effects in young children.
Coughs caused by the common cold usually go away in a few weeks. Chronic, persistent coughs may be caused by underlying medical problem such as allergies, asthma, or acid reflux -- or by the medications you take. To lose those coughs you need to treat the underlying problem.
Talk to your doctor if your cough lasts longer than two to four weeks, or if you are coughing up blood, or if you're having other symptoms such as weight loss, chills, or fatigue.