Who hasn’t been inconvenienced by a wet cough or sputum? How can you get rid of these unpleasant secretions? You will find some answers here.
Bronchi: tubes that can become obstructed
Bronchi (and bronchioles) make up a system of airways that connect the windpipe to the lungs. The air inhaled through the nose passes through the larynx, then the trachea, before reaching its ultimate destination: the lungs. The lungs’ main function is to ensure gas exchanges between air and blood and to participate in the distribution of oxygen. Different problems, varying in nature and severity, may occur when breathing is compromised.
The mucous membrane lining the inside of bronchi is equipped with microscopic mucus-coated mobile cilia. These cilia form a type of “conveyer belt” that traps impurities, including dust and debris, and expels them from the body. Coughing is a way to expel unwanted substances accumulated in mucus, which are then spit out or swallowed.
In some situations, the mucus thickens and obstructs the bronchi. This is called bronchial congestion. This is one of the body’s defence mechanisms to get rid of foreign and harmful substances.
The causes of bronchial obstruction
Bronchial congestion is often caused by a viral or bacterial respiratory infection. The common cold and the flu are good examples of viral infections that can explain the presence of bronchial secretions and coughing. Bronchitis is a bacterial infection that causes similar symptoms. The presence of coloured sputum is common in such cases.
However, bronchial congestion can be attributed to other factors such as:
- allergies (e.g. to animals or pollen)
- chronic diseases (e.g. asthma or cystic fibrosis)
- exposure to irritating substances (e.g. dust or chemicals)
If you are a smoker, quitting smoking can gradually reduce your chronic cough and bronchial congestion. Your pharmacist can help you quit smoking, so don't hesitate to ask.
The cause of a wet cough and bronchial congestion must first be identified in order to initiate appropriate treatment. In the case of a cold or the flu, the immune system must fight the infection. This takes some time. In the meantime, coughing and bronchial congestion can be relieved by over-the-counter medications.
The most common medication used in cough and congestion preparations is guaifenesin. This is an “expectorant”, an agent that helps loosen and expel mucus, making the cough more productive. Guaifenesin is found in a number of preparations provided in a solid (e.g. tablets) or liquid (e.g. syrup) format. The same preparation can contain guaifenesin in combination with other products such as dextromethorphan (“DM”, a cough suppressant) or menthol.
Drinking lots of water or hot drinks can sometimes help to clear up secretions.
When to seek medical attention
It is best to see a doctor if the cough or bronchial congestion lasts longer than 7 to 14 days. The same applies if the following signs and symptoms occur:
Signs and symptoms
- coloured (dark) bronchial secretions
- high fever or a fever that lasts more than 48 hours
- unusual or worrisome manifestations such as:
- vomiting with coughing
- blood in the sputum
- skin rash
- difficulty breathing, and
- chest or back pain
- progressive worsening of the affected person’s condition
Speak to your pharmacist if you have any questions about wet cough or bronchial congestion.