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A “cough” can be voluntary or involuntary. It’s primary health function is to clear the air passages of debris, whether introduced from the outside or from within.

Outside debris that can produce a cough include food, smoke, dust, bugs and mold, and other foreign objects that generate a gag reflex. Debris, or exudate, from within may include mucus from inflammation, or by-products of bacterial infections or cancerous growth, or back-up of fluids from a clogged or malfunctioning cardiovascular system.

A cough can be produced by phlegm originating from a sinus infection that creates a post nasal drip. It can also be stimulated by acid refluxing up from the stomach. It can even be precipitated by breathing in cold air or strong perfume.

You may notice that among the side effects listed in the disclaimers of many pharmaceutical drugs you will find the “cough.”

An occasional cough is normal and healthy. A cough that persists for several weeks or one that brings up discolored or bloody mucus may indicate a condition that needs medical attention.

At times, coughing can be very forceful — the velocity of air from a vigorous cough can approach 100 miles an hour, or even higher. Prolonged, vigorous coughing is exhausting and can cause sleeplessness, headaches, urinary incontinence and even broken ribs.

Some of the more common causes of short-lived coughs include the common cold or flu, pneumonia and whooping cough.

The more persistent coughs may have causes such as bronchitis, asthma, allergies, congestive heart disease, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, tuberculosis and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.

Treatment should target the cause, for example, smoking cessation and discontinuing ACE inhibitors. Cough suppressants such as codeine or dextromethorphan are frequently prescribed but have been demonstrated to have little effect. Homeopathic Drosera has shown effectiveness in calming down a cough. Other treatment options may target airway inflammation or may promote mucus expectoration. As it is a natural protective reflex, suppressing the cough reflex might have damaging effects, especially if the cough is productive.

Agitation of the airways from persistent exposure to smoke of any kind, but especially from smoke containing the thousands of chemical irritants of commercial cigarettes, will paralyze the hair-like cilia of the air passageways that methodically move debris to be expelled to the outside.

Eucalyptus inhaled from a humidifier, or even from a pot of boiling water infused with its leaves, can effectively sooth and open the bronchioles, as well as kill bacteria.

Remember, the first step is to determine whether or not the cough is beneficial. Then choose a treatment that best addresses the situation whether that be suppression of the cough or support for the eliminatory process or protection of the tissue being traumatized by the violent repercussions of the cough.

Dr. Miles practices Naturopathic Medicine alongside other holistic practitioners at the Catalina Clinic of Integrative Medicine in Catalina, Arizona.