HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

Table of Contents

 Section I–Common Health Problems Caution

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“The air in the dorm is so dry, that it makes a lot of us cough at night. We find that a cheap humidifier or even a large bowl of water in the room adds enough moisture to relieve those nightly coughs.”

Rachael G., Cornell University

Coughing clears the lungs and airways. Coughing is only a symptom, not the problem.

Signs & Symptoms

There are 3 kinds of coughs:

bullet Productive. This brings up mucus or phlegm.
bullet Nonproductive. This is a dry cough.
bullet Reflex. This is a cough that comes from a problem somewhere else, like the ear or stomach.


bullet Tobacco smoke
bullet Dry air
bullet Infections. Examples are bronchitis, colds, and the flu. (See “Colds & Flu” )
bullet Allergies and postnasal drip
bullet Asthma

Other causes include having something stuck in your windpipe and acid reflux from the stomach that comes with heartburn. Coughing can also be a symptom of a medical condition, such as asthma.


How to treat your cough depends on what kind it is. Treat the cause and soothe the irritation. Stay away from smoking and secondhand smoke. Smoke hurts your lungs and makes it harder for your body to fight an infection.

Questions to Ask

With coughing do you have signs of severe allergic reaction?
  • A hard time breathing or swallowing
  • Severe swelling all over, or of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat
  • Obstructed airway
  • Wheezing
  • Dizziness, weakness
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


With coughing, do you have any of these problems?
  • Trouble breathing and/or you are not able to say more than 4 to 5 words between breaths
  • Fainting
  • You cough up true red blood.
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Do you have a very sudden onset of coughing from inhaling a small object? Yes. Get Immediate Care.


With a cough, do you have any of these problems?
  • An itchy, red splotchy rash
  • A fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Your chest hurts only when you cough and the pain goes away when you sit up or lean forward.
  • You cough up green, yellow, or bloody-colored mucus.
  • You lose weight for no reason, feel tired, and sweat a lot at night.
Yes. See Provider.


Does your cough last for more than 2 weeks without getting better? Yes. Call Provider.



For Coughs that Bring Up Mucus:
bullet Drink plenty of liquids, such as water, hot tea, and fruit juice.
bullet Use a cool-mist vaporizer in your room.
bullet Take a shower. The steam can thin mucus.
bullet Take an over-the-counter expectorant or cough medicine containing guaifenesin.
bullet Don’t smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke.

For Coughs that Are Dry:

bullet Drink liquids. Have warm tea, chicken soup, etc.
bullet Suck on cough drops or hard candy.
bullet Take an over-the-counter cough medicine that contains dextromethorphan. Take only as directed.
Pitcher of orange juice.

Liquids help loosen
mucus and soothe a
sore throat.

February 19, 2004

©2003, 4th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.