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How To Treat Coughs This Flu Season

It is no secret that this is one of the worst flu seasons we have seen in years. But flu isn't the only thing going around. Lots of people have colds and bronchitis and that means a lot of coughing going on.

What is the best way to deal with this? We asked Early Show contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall for her advice.

First question which seems simple but many people may not know the answer: Why do we cough?

Marshall: Basically we have sensitive cough receptors all throughout our airways and they get triggered by something that doesn't belong there - debris or dust or mucus. It sends signals to our body to propel air forcefully through our airways to flush that debris out, and we cough. We can get into a cycle because the more you cough, the more irritated the receptors get - and the more irritated, the more we cough.

Are so many of us coughing because it is the worst flu season in years?

Marshall: The flu is one reason. One of the most common is upper respiratory infections, but also a lot of cold infections, too. And then people develop other illnesses that can produce coughing.

You have some important advise on how to treat a cough. First thing you say is, get a humidifier?

Marshall: That's right. Because the dry air in the wintertime can exacerbate our coughs. We want to add moisture back into the air using a humidifier. So buy one, put it in your bedroom at night when people complain of coughs more than they do during the daytime.

This is one piece of advice our mom tells us: drink plenty of liquids. Why is that, to loosen things up in your throat?

Marshall: You got it. Cough it up if you have a lot of chest congestion. Drink fluids, and people find warm liquids soothing.

And this seems to be a no-brainer: Don't smoke!

Marshall: Yes, smoking or tobacco is one of the most irritating things to the cough receptors. And secondhand smoke is a problem. So even if you are not a smoker, stay away from smokers.

What about cough syrups? Do they work?

Marshall: Well, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. A lot of people don't find the over-the-counter stuff particularly helpful but if you have a dry, hacking cough, look for something called a cough suppressor. If you want to try to cough up mucus, then find these products in many over-the-counter brands. But you can find them in cheaper generic versions as well. If you don't find these helpful, talk to your doctor who might be able to prescribe a prescription cough syrup.

And when do you know that it is time to go to the doctor?

Marshall: If you have high fever, if you are coughing up blood, if you have shortness of breath or chest pains, then get into your doctor's office.

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