If you have COPD, coughing is often necessary to clear mucus from your airways. allowing you to breathe more easily. Doctors may recommend a specific technique.
Coughing may seem like a symptom you want to relieve, but, in the case of COPD, it serves a function.
Read on to learn more about how COPD and coughing are related, how to ease a cough, and when to seek medical attention.
If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you’ll likely experience one or more of the following four symptoms:
- shortness of breath, especially with activity
- wheezing, or producing a gasping, whistling sound when you try to breathe
- feeling tight or constricted in your chest area
- coughing that produces moderate to large amounts of mucus or sputum
People tend to find coughing the most disruptive of these symptoms.
Coughing can interfere with social events, such as going to the movies, and prevent you from falling asleep at night.
Many people go to their doctor or an urgent care center seeking relief from the chronic coughing associated with COPD.
When should you see a pulmonologist?
If you have a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks or becomes severe, your doctor may refer you to a pulmonologist. A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions of the respiratory system, such as COPD, asthma, and lung cancer.
As annoying as this coughing may be, it actually serves a useful function. Deep coughing clears the mucus that clogs your airways, allowing you to breathe more easily.
Some doctors teach their patients how to cough and encourage them to do so often.
Other experts even go a step further and advise against doing anything to stop the coughing, as a clear airway means easier breathing in the long run.
If you’ve had COPD for a while, you probably know how much you usually cough.
If you find yourself coughing more than usual or coughing up sputum that looks different than it normally does, it may be time to go to the doctor to make sure you’re not having a flare-up or an exacerbation.
An increase in coughing can have several causes. Your body may be producing more sputum or mucus. Exposure to irritants, especially cigarette smoke or harsh fumes, can also increase coughing.
You may also be coughing more because you’ve developed a comorbidity, which means another illness exists alongside your COPD.
Examples of comorbidities include infections such as pneumonia or influenza, or issues such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
When you lie down, GERD can push stomach acid into your throat and mouth and cause you to cough.
If your increased coughing is due to a comorbidity, you may speak with a doctor about taking medications to return to your regular level of coughing.
Don’t make any assumptions, though — speak with your doctor as they can make a diagnosis and prescribe you the right medication.
If you smoke, the most important step is to stop smoking. Quitting will end “smoker’s cough,” the dry, hacking cough common among people who smoke tobacco.
A deep, productive cough that clears the airways of mucus may replace this dry cough.
Drugs for coughing
Short- or long-acting inhaled beta-agonists such as albuterol or salmeterol (Serevent) will sometimes help decrease coughing.
Beta-agonists are a type of bronchodilator that helps open your airways and get more oxygen into your lungs.
Long-acting bronchodilators are sometimes used in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid. Advair and Symbicort are examples of combination medications.
Although a few small studies showed a significant reduction in coughing, other studies could not reproduce that result. Long-term use of codeine can have potential for dependence.
Using cough syrup and codeine to manage coughing is a decision that needs to be made by you and your doctor.
Other COPD drugs
Other medications are important for COPD management but don’t affect the cough. These include:
- corticosteroids, such as prednisone
- long-acting anticholinergics, such as tiotropium (Spiriva), which can make the cough reflex more sensitive
Both prednisone and tiotropium
COPD includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Chronic bronchitis typically results in coughing and excess mucus production. Emphysema results in shortness of breath due to progressive destruction of alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs.
Shortness of breath rather than a cough is the most prominent symptom of emphysema. However, most patients with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis and therefore cough.
Although coughing is a primary symptom of COPD, surprisingly little research has been done on controlling it or even on whether it should be controlled.
If coughing interferes with your quality of life, talk with your doctor to find treatment options.
What coughing technique can help bring up mucus in chronic cough?
Here’s a coughing technique called huff cough to bring up mucus that won’t wear you out. This can be helpful in those with an ongoing cough due to COPD or other chronic lung conditions. It’s helpful to work with your doctor or respiratory therapist when learning this technique.
- Sit up straight in a chair with your head up.
- Breathe in using your abdomen and hold for 2 to 3 seconds.
- With the back of your throat open, let out your air in a burst, making a “ha” sound.
- Do 2 to 3 huff breaths, then rest for 5 to 10 breaths.
- Repeat this in cycles.
The larger the breath, the more effective it is for smaller airways.
— Judith Marcin, MD
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.