How to Treat a Cough During Pregnancy

Time, patience and a little TLC will help.
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November 11, 2022
woman touching neck due to cough

A cough can be a nuisance—and a painful one at that. But enduring a wet, dry or incessant cough during pregnancy may feel extra irritating and even worrisome. First, know this: You’re far from the first person to have a cough in pregnancy, and you definitely won’t be the last. The good news: It’s most likely nothing, and with some TLC, you’ll likely feel better soon. That said, there are some important things to consider before you reach for your preferred cough medication to quell that croupy hack of yours. Here’s what you need to know about coughing while pregnant, plus tips to help you get some relief.

Causes of a Cough During Pregnancy

Doctors stress that the causes of a cough during pregnancy are pretty standard. In other words, they’re not unique to pregnancy. Having a baby on board can bring on a lot of changes, says Alexandra Bratschie, CNM, WHNP, certified nurse midwife at Women’s Health at Valley View in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “What doesn’t change is why we cough,” she adds. Suffice it to say, you can’t blame baby for your bark.

There are a number of potential reasons why you might develop a cough during pregnancy or otherwise, says Megan Quimper, MD, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The most common causes include:

A viral illness, such as the common cold, flu or COVID-19 Allergies Asthma Gastric reflux

Can a Cough During Pregnancy Hurt Baby?

The good news is that while it may be annoying, coughing alone won’t hurt baby, says Kjersti Aagaard, MD, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. And, no, it won’t cause you to go into labor either.

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“Baby is protected inside the muscle of the uterus and is surrounded by amniotic fluid, which acts as a buffer against movements associated with coughing,” explains Nancy Phillips, MD, director of the Center for Vulvar and Vaginal Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Of course, while this is reassuring, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re entirely in the clear. As Aagaard points out, left untreated, an illness that causes a cough during pregnancy could potentially hurt baby. For example, pregnant women are at a higher-than-normal risk of developing serious complications of viral illnesses that cause coughs like COVID-19 and the flu, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is why it’s important to figure out why you have a cough, and begin treating the underlying cause, if necessary.

What Cough Medicine Is Safe for Pregnancy?

Unfortunately, research on cold and cough medicines in pregnancy is fairly limited. “In general, more studies need to be done both for the efficacy and safety of medications in pregnancy,” says Bratschie.

Plus, research has repeatedly shown that common over-the-counter medications don’t do much to relieve coughs on their own. However, if do want to try taking an over-the-counter option, Phillips notes that there are certain cough medicines generally considered safe for pregnancy, including:

  • Dextromethorphan. This cough suppressant is considered safe throughout pregnancy.
  • Guaifenesin. This active ingredient is an expectorant (meaning, it thins the mucus), and is generally recommended after the first trimester.
  • Pseudoephedrine. Again, this decongestant is generally recommended after the first trimester.

“Cough syrups that contain alcohol or high levels of sugar should be avoided,” notes Phillips. Always check with your doctor before taking any new medication or supplement during pregnancy.

Can you have cough drops while pregnant?

Looking for an instantly soothing effect? Cough drops can help. And, yes, you can take cough drops while pregnant; this includes menthol and nonmenthol options, says Quimper. “Cough drops of any variety are safe to take in pregnancy,” she adds. That said, follow recommended doses if taking those with menthol.

Home Remedies for a Cough During Pregnancy

Coughs typically go away after about a week, and often resolve on their own. In other words, a cough during pregnancy (or anytime, really) is a waiting game. Fortunately, there are certain home remedies you can try to help yourself feel better in the meantime. These include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a humidifier
  • Drink tea or hot water with lemon and honey
  • Gargle with warm salt water for a cough with a sore throat
  • Use saline drops if the cough is from post-nasal drip or congestion

If you suspect that your cough is from reflux, Phillips recommends that you try to avoid large meals, and instead eat several smaller portions throughout the day. Additionally, avoid spicy foods, and try not to lay flat after you eat. If your cough is from allergies, try to avoid any triggers. “Many antihistamines are safe in pregnancy like loratadine, diphenhydramine and cetirizine,” Phillips adds.

When to Call Your Doctor About a Cough During Pregnancy

If you think your cough could be due to the flu or COVID-19, it’s a good idea to call your doctor about getting tested. Your other symptoms also matter. “If you’re having any difficulty breathing, you should seek immediate medical attention,” Quimper adds. If you have a fever, are coughing up mucus, your symptoms seem to be getting worse or the lingering cough just won’t quit, get checked out. Listen to your body, and don’t hesitate to escalate any concerns to your doctor—for your sake and baby’s.

About the experts:

Kjersti Aagaard, MD, is a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She received her medical degree from the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Alexandra Bratschie, CNM, WHNP, is a certified nurse midwife at Women’s Health at Valley View in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. She received her master of science degree from Georgetown University.

Nancy Phillips, MD, is the director of the Center for Vulvovaginal Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She received her medical degree from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, New Jersey.

Megan Quimper, MD, is an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She received her medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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