Coughing is the body’s way of ejecting harmful substances from the respiratory tract. Coughing and congestion often occur together as symptoms of a common condition, such as bronchitis or influenza. While coughing and congestion can be temporarily relieved using over-the-counter medications, symptoms that last longer than a week should be evaluated by a doctor.
A variety of viruses, bacteria and fungi can cause infections that trigger coughing and congestion. Influenza and the common cold are among the most frequent viral offenders, while bronchitis and other lower respiratory tract infections may also be to blame. In some cases, allergies and sinus infection may cause nasal drainage that leads to coughing and congestion.
Coughing and congestion are often accompanied by other symptoms, some of which can help determine the underlying cause. Infection of the sinuses and lower respiratory tract can result in fever and general malaise. Influenza and other viruses trigger body aches and exhaustion, while symptoms like sneezing and red eyes may point to an allergy-related cause.
Left untreated, coughing and congestion can lead to more serious complications. Nasal congestion may increase the risk of sinus infection by trapping bacteria and other pathogens in the mucus and allowing them to proliferate. Prolonged coughing can irritate the throat and cause pain in the chest and lungs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, influenza can lead to dehydration, bacterial pneumonia and life-threatening complications from chronic health conditions like asthma or heart failure. Other possible complications of conditions associated with coughing and congestion include sepsis, encephalitis and endocarditis--an inflammation of the tissue around the heart.
The best treatment for coughing and nasal congestion is bed rest and increased water intake to help thin the mucus. Medicines that contain decongestants like pseudoephedrine can provide temporary relief from congestion, as can herbs like cayenne pepper. Medications containing cough suppressants and expectorants can help make dry coughs more productive while reducing the frequency of coughing.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, use of saline nasal sprays and a humidifier can help clear blocked nasal passages. Because many cases are caused by viral infections with no known cure, symptoms may persist until the infection has run its course.
If you experience coughing and congestion accompanied by bloody sputum, severe chest pain or a fever of over 103° Fahrenheit, seek prompt medical attention. These may be signs of a life-threatening complication like pneumonia or tuberculosis.