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Cough and cold


Cough and cold are common symptoms that are often contracted by population in the world. On average, adults usually experience cold two to five times a year whereas children and geriatrics may get affected at a higher rate. Naturally, cough and cold are the self-defense mechanisms that usually occur to prevent germ infections. In medical terminology, cough is define as a reflex action that is stimulated by inflammation on mucosal surface of throat and lung airways. Coughing helps to cleanse the lungs and airways from foreign substances that entered nostrils and throat.


Virus remains the main cause of infection at the upper respiratory tract (nose, pharynx and larynx), which causes cough and cold. Rhinovirus and Coronavirus are the viruses that cause most of the infection. Apart from that, you may also get cough and cold due to allergic reaction caused by dust, smoke, pollen, perfume and animal fur. Extreme weather that is too hot or too cold may weaken body defense system, causing the body to be more susceptible to bacteria or virus infection.

Signs and Symptoms

Early signs and symptoms of a common cold usually include a dry and painful throat, and body weakness. This is then followed by the symptoms below:

  • Runny nose : usually the liquid is clear in colour, followed by production of mucus that is thicker.
  • Blocked nose : occurs due to irritation and inflammation of blood vessels. This will cause narrowing of nasal airway and mucus production will cause the patient to sneeze.
  • Cough : occurs due to irritation at pharynx. At early stage, the cough is usually dry and without phlegm. At the later stage, severe bronchial congestion may cause severe cough with phlegm. For children, there will be rise in body temperature, loss of appetite and vomiting when they cough.
  • Pain in the ear : occurs due to mucus production behind the eardrum, causing pain and hearing problems as well as temporary loss of sense of smell and taste.
  • Headache : occurs due to inflammation and congestion of nasal and sinus airways.

Treatment and Prevention

In general, cough and cold does not require specific treatment for recovery. The aim of the treatment is to relief the symptoms, avoid complications and avoid spreading of the illness. Therefore, the medicines used in the treatment will only provide temporary relieve while the body immunity system works hard to fight and eradicate the virus. The medicines that are usually used in cough and cold treatment are as below:

Type Example of medicine Function
Decongestant Pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline To widen the airway and relieve blocked nose through reduction of mucus production to ease breathing.
Cough suppressants Dextromethorphan Used to treat dry cough. Relieving and reducing the frequency of painful dry cough.
Expectorant Guaiphenesin Used to treat wet/productive cough (cough with phlegm). Aid to relieve congestive chest by thinning and expelling phlegm.
Mucolytic agent Bromhexine To aid mucus expulsion by thinning mucous in the airway.
Antihistamine (anti-allergic) Loratadine, chlorpheniramine, brompheniramine, triprolidine To reduce cold symptoms such as sneezing, itchy and watery nose.
Antipyretic/ analgesic Acetaminophen, ibuprofen To relieve fever and reduce headache
Others Diphenhydramine To aid in sleeping and reducing cough

A few tips in preventing and reducing cough and cold are as follows:

  • Practise good self hygiene by washing your hands thoroughly, cover mouth when sneezing or couhging, use a facemask when feeling unwell and discard used tissue in the bin.
  • Avoid crowded area especially those who unwell.
  • Eat balanced diet.
  • Avoid smoking and taking alcohol.
  • Drink sufficient water, at least 8 glasses a day to maintain body hydration. The consumption of water, juices and other beverages such as tea may help to avoid dehydration at nose or throat area.

Treatment Guideline

There are some important points regarding medicines that are used in the treatment of cough and cold.

  • Consumers should read product labels before starting any treatment. Most products for the treatment of cough and cold in the market contains the same active ingredient (as single/combination) even though the brand names are different. Certain herbs and over-the-counter products may also contain the same ingredient for cough and cold treatment. Multiple dose consumption or polypharmacy will increase the risk of side effects to the patients.
  • Make sure that you know the right way to use your medicines, the duration of usage, therapeutic effects and side effects that are anticipated through advices from healthcare professionals such as pharmacist or medical practitioner.
  • If the symptoms continue on or if there is any complication occurred, you should consult a medical practitioner for further investigation.
  • Taking too much of antipyretic/analgesic may lead to serious health problems such as bleeding and liver toxicity. These medicines should only be taken when necessary and consumption should be stopped when the symptoms are relieved.
  • Medicines such as antihistamine may cause drowsiness. Patient should rest and avoid handling any vehicle or machinery while taking this medicine.
  • Cautions should be taken when giving cough and flu medicines to children under two years old. Drug Control Authority (DCA) no longer registering cough and cold products for the usage of children under two years old due to reporting of serious adverse effects and lack of research that prove the efficacy and safety of these medicines in children.
  • Do not take antibiotics to treat viral infection of cough and cold. Uncontrolled usage of antibiotic may increase antibiotic resistance in patient. Body immune system is the best defense to fight off this virus.


Cough and cold are usually temporary and may heal on its own. The treatment is aimed to help patients to overcome uncomfortable feelings and to increase focus in daily activities. Self medication with products available over the counter is possible for cough and cold. However, patients may be proned to serious side effect risks if the medicines are taken without any guidance. Be a wise consumer and seek advice from pharmacist or medical practitioner in selecting and using these medicines.

Last Reviewed : 20 March 2015
Writer : Farahwahida bt. Mohd Kasim
Translator : Hazlin bt. Othman
Accreditor : Munira bt. Muhammad