Just cough it up!
February 20, 2017 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Need ideas for supportive treatment for a chest cold/congestion. I am seemingly physically unable to just "cough it up," and this is limiting my job abilities! Sorry for grossness below the fold.

I have a relatively minor chest cold - at least I assume that's what it is. It came on last Tuesday evening out of nowhere... suddenly I had a rattly, gross cough. It has gotten slightly worse in terms of the amount of mucus but I don't really feel terribly sick otherwise. No symptoms above my neck, although the crap in my throat does taste like bleachy death.

The problem is that there is a big congested pile of mucus hanging around my... trachea? It doesn't feel deep in my lungs but it's not exactly in the back of my throat either. It's around the level of my suprasternal notch (thank you Google for the name of that hollow).

When I cough, or laugh, or breathe funny, this junk gets stirred up in a way that I start choking, gagging, or being momentarily unable to breathe or speak, and then my voice is all messed up and gross sounding for a few minutes minute. I sound like a gravely mess upon exhale and especially inhale when everything is all stirred up in there.

Everyone keeps telling me, "Just cough it up!" only I can't! Even when I cough hard, I just end up gagging myself and nothing actually makes it far enough into my mouth to spit out. My body also seems to reflexively swallow repeatedly until my airway is clear enough to breathe normally.

This minor illness is hitting me hard because a) I'm a teacher and need a normal voice [and really can't take time off for a minor illness that's been going on for 6 days], b) I'm super emetophobic and the gagging makes me really anxious, and c) I just want to be able to laugh without choking myself!

I have tried:

- cough drops
- drinking tons of water
- hot water with lemon
- gargling with salt water (can't gargle "deep" enough to get anything out)
- inhaling sharply and deeply to suck the crud back down... this makes me able to speak normally but is gross and probably really bad for my lungs?
- the yoga pose suggested by the internet for chest drainage
- breathing super hot shower steam
- Mucinex DM and regular Mucinex

Some of those things help me cough less but none of them are making a dent in the mucus.

Any other ideas to break up and thin out the mucus, that preferably DON'T involve coughing it up? I just want it to dissolve and go back where it came from.

P.S. Please don't suggest antibiotics, a doctor has said I don't need them, and I have a medical condition that makes them not a good idea unless I am super, super sick.
posted by raspberrE to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Neti pot, or other nasal rinse. The rinse thins the mucus directly by diluting it with water.

I never could stand the tipping my head backwards and salt water until I got an XClear brand system. It's a squeeze bottle with a tip that fits nicely against (not in) the nostril, and it also leaks if you push too hard, so it guarantees a gentle flow. The solution that comes with has Xylitol (a sweetener) as well as salt, and no more gagging!
posted by Jesse the K at 4:23 PM on February 20, 2017

This happened to me recently and what helped me was saline nasal spray. This is going to sound gross but I sprayed it into my nostril and flushed it out of my mouth. I did it a couple times a day. Btw, I do not suggest using water or a netipot, just the sterile saline spray.

Hope your back to your old self soon!
posted by jraz at 4:24 PM on February 20, 2017

I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure this is what guaifenesin is for: thinning out mucus. Be sure to drink lots of water, and try to get it by itself at full strength (some multi-symptom cold meds will have relatively little in them).
posted by lorimt at 4:39 PM on February 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

What about eucalyptus oil in the shower steam? It's one of the cheaper essential oils at your local Whole Foods or whatever. You just put a couple of drops on, say, the shower wall, then spray them with water that's hot enough to make the oil evaporate.
posted by salvia at 4:47 PM on February 20, 2017

For what it's worth, when I had a chronic chest issue my acupuncturist suggested making a tea of orange peels! I never tried it, might not be western science approved, but there you go.
Or, what about breathing in some steam with essential oils of eucalyptus?
posted by elke_wood at 4:48 PM on February 20, 2017

I think you caught the viral bronchitis bug that's going around. I had it, and went to the doctor - she suggested mucinex (which you've tried) and gave me another inhaler (already had a separate one). Neither did any good. Also tried most everything else on your list and the neti pot.

What sort of helped was real sudafed and Benadryl - counterintuitive. But mostly, just time. Eventually I started hacking up the crud - maybe three weeks later. It took me two months to get over it entirely.
posted by umwhat at 4:48 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sudafed to dry out the gunk.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:57 PM on February 20, 2017

I get this frequently. I use a decongestant like claritin to stop nasal drip which irritates my throat and tend to increase the likelihood of me developing a bacterial infection out of what is otherwise a passing viral infection. The decongestant drying is helpful not just for comfort but prevention. Your body can be totally different though! Salt gargles helped my ex but did very little for me.

The sinus rinse helps a lot, but gauge how often. You can only do it once a day max and you might want to alternate with the classic towel over head and breathing in gentle steam from a bowl.

And I love Fluimucil even though it tastes pretty salty-weird. It's a fizzy tablet you dissolve in water. Here it's prescription from a doctor, and not very expensive. It works really well for loosening all the gunk and making it easy to breathe and cough. It's too strong for a kid, so our youngest has to stick to robutussin.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:14 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

A concerted walk of a mile or two will mobilize junk in your lungs, and get it to where you can spit or swallow. It can provide sustained relief for hours at a time, depending on how gunked up you are.
posted by the Real Dan at 5:15 PM on February 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Steam, hot teas & decongestant. Exercise can also help. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water.
posted by wwax at 5:30 PM on February 20, 2017

It will not kill you nor make you sicker to swallow the mucus. It may or may not affect your poop somewhat.
posted by desuetude at 5:40 PM on February 20, 2017

Don't buy Sudafed off the shelf. Stand in line and ask the pharmacist for pseudoephedrine. It is OTC but you don't find it on the shelf be of meth. This is what my doc told me to take when I had an ear infection and really needed to dry out my head.
posted by bq at 5:49 PM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, still getting over this. What helped me was time (2 months, sorry..), Sudafed (the real stuff, no PE no-better-than-placebo for me), sufficient sleep, and getting a new asthma inhaler. (Hadn't needed one in years, but if you have what I had, it's rough on sensitive lungs).

I actually started getting better after I saw the doc and got the inhaler (yeah, likely viral, so no antibiotics); but she had a suggestion that I would have tried if I had time- take a big bowl of hot water, put in a few chamomile tea bags, and then put your head right over it and a towel over your head so you breathe in the steam. I didn't try the whole thing, but sure did find sticking my nose over a cup of tea to be useful, so could be a good idea.
posted by nat at 6:11 PM on February 20, 2017

"What about eucalyptus oil in the shower steam? It's one of the cheaper essential oils at your local Whole Foods or whatever."

You can also get commercial tablets that you drop in the shower and it releases eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor fumes in the steam, it's VERY SOOTHING.

I also usually do some combo of sudafed & benadryl, in addition to the mucinex, to help with the post-nasal drip and dry it all out. Your doctor should be able to provide some more options for non-antibiotic care, including inhalers, to help you keep working.

Other slightly more unusual but non-medication options include postural drainage and chest percussion, which your doctor can probably give you some direction about, if it would help in your case (it might not). OR, and this is very avant garde but studies suggest it CAN work, a tuning fork put against the mucusy area can vibrate it loose. (I think they're using machines to generate vibration in modern studies, though, and tuning forks are just the traditional folk medicine version that inspired the more recent studies.) I one time had a doctor do the tuning fork thing on a sinus infection and HOLY CRAP it broke that shit right up. I mean it still took days to clear the infection but at least my sinus was less-painful.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:18 PM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Someone on FB mentioned freezing water and Vicks VapoRub into blocks to throw on the shower floor.

We do the hot water and towel thing for like ten minutes ata time (face sauna is hiw I think of it), and I do hot lemonade.

Good luck, it sux.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:48 PM on February 20, 2017

(before there were shower tabs and dabs of oil there were branches of downed eucalyptus and branches of pruned rosemary etc hung in the shower and those still work too)
posted by aniola at 7:01 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when I feel a similar sensation of "there's gak in a hard-to-cough-up spot", I actually try to gargle with plain hot water, hot as I can stand it, with my head tipped way back. I don't know whether it's the steam from the water or my gargling that shakes it loose, but it seems to thin things out and actually wash the mucus into my nose, and then I blow my nose a bunch and that does the trick.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:32 PM on February 20, 2017

Opposite direction - stop coughing.

You may very well be feeling the swollen tissues in the back of your throat and not mucus. If it was mucus, then it should have thinned with the hydration, hot liquids and mucus thinning medication. You've tried that, and it didn't help.

I'd go with a cough suppressant, decongestant and warm tea with honey. Also Cepacol lozenges for numbing.
posted by 26.2 at 7:56 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you can stand the licorice taste, I find that Throat Coat tea to be very soothing on the throat, and may help any swelling/irritation being caused by the hacking and phlegm. Bonus if you add honey and/or lemon to it. It's also completely non caffeinated.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:56 PM on February 20, 2017

My first thought was the same as 26.2's - that you may not be able to cough anything up because what you feel might not actually be mucus. Perhaps an anti inflammatory like ibuprofen might help a little bit.I sympathize. Persistent viral coughs are the worst.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:58 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Guafenesin/Mucinex will thin the mucus, but remember to drink a LOT of water along with the medicine. That's a step some folks forget, and it's necessary to thin things out. I tend to get sinus/lung congestion problems several times a year, and preventative medicines have helped me tremendously. Flonase for my sinuses, Advair for my lungs. So look into those if this happens on any regular basis. Feel better soon!
posted by jhope71 at 10:15 AM on February 21, 2017

So Vicks vapor rub on my chest, then letting hot shower water hit my chest, combined with having my spouse pound on my back pretty hard (didn't have a tuning fork, Eyebrows), and a tickle in my throat led to an accidental extremely strong coughing fit that ended with a huge slimy ball of mucus in my mouth. I won't tell you what happened to it after that.

The good news is, apparently I had just been inhaling and exhaling that same ball of crud for 6 days because the mucus is 80% better today.

The bad news is now I have a much more uncontrollable cough. But at least I am not choking on my own secretions.

Thanks for the suggestions, and I wish all future mucus breathers well.

(P.S. I tried a Neti pot - well, sinus rinse squeeze bottle - but I don't think the mucus was actually coming from my sinuses. There was nothing up there. It must have gotten down in my chest a while back and just hung around.)
posted by raspberrE at 3:57 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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