An ongoing (chronic) cough is associated with numerous illnesses, including asthma. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, chronic coughs last for at least eight weeks or longer. Persistent coughing is one of the telltale signs of asthma. It can also be one of the most nagging symptoms of asthma if it’s left untreated. Learn more about asthmatic cough and how to treat the symptoms of this chronic condition.
A cough is often a Catch-22: The basic function of a cough is to protect the lungs from developing infections, but coughing can be frustrating. There are two types of coughs: productive and nonproductive. When a cough is described as productive, it means that a noticeable amount of phlegm is expelled, which also enables the lung to rid itself of potentially harmful substances.
Coughing in people with asthma can be helpful because it’s one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms. A productive asthmatic cough will expel phlegm and mucus from the lungs. However, most cases of asthma cough are considered nonproductive. In other words, it’s a dry cough — a response to an irritant that forces the bronchial tubes to spasm (or constrict). Asthma is characterized by swelling (inflammation) and constriction of the airways, which prompts this type of nonproductive cough. An asthma cough is also often accompanied by wheezing. This is a high-pitched whistling sound, which is the result of constricted airways.
A cough is indeed the most common asthma symptom. In fact, it’s sometimes the only symptom of this condition. Still, when figuring out whether your cough is attributable to asthma or not, it may be helpful to assess any other potential related symptoms you may have. Other asthma symptoms may include:
- chest tightness from excessive coughing
- fatigue from night coughs
- problems exercising
- prolonged illnesses and infections
- shortness of breath
With asthma, a cough can be troublesome, especially at nighttime. It makes getting restful sleep difficult and sometimes requires special treatment. Night coughs are most often related to asthma or other breathing problems such as emphysema.
It’s also important to understand symptoms that are not associated with asthma cough. Seek emergency medical attention if your cough is accompanied by:
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
- high or long-lasting fever
- loss of appetite
- night sweats
- problems talking because of breathing difficulties
- changes in skin color due to difficulty breathing
Before you start an asthmatic cough treatment regimen, your doctor will probably order breathing tests to measure your lung function. These tests may also be ordered periodically to measure the effectiveness of any medications you might take. According to the Mayo Clinic, these diagnostic tools are most effective in patients ages 6 and older. Your doctor might also do allergy testing if they suspect your cough is a symptom of allergic asthma.
Controller medications are the most commonly used treatments for asthma. Inhaled corticosteroids help decrease lung inflammation, one of the causes of asthma cough. These are used on a long-term basis, unlike oral corticosteroids, which are used for short periods of time during severe flare-ups.
Quick-relief inhalers are prescribed to have on-hand in case of wheezing and coughing flare-ups. Most of these fall into the class of short-acting beta-antagonists. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, quick-relief inhalers are generally meant to be used once or twice a week. Your doctor may also recommend them for use before exercise, or during an illness. Call your doctor if you find you rely on your quick-relief inhaler more often than recommended.
Asthma cough may also be relieved through long-term oral medications such as leukotriene modifiers. One such drug is called montelukast (Singulair). These work by treating asthma symptoms related to allergic rhinitis.
Alternative treatments may help an asthmatic cough, but they should be regarded as complementing treatments. Never stop prescription medications for homeopathic medicine. Ask your doctor if the following techniques may help your asthma cough:
- herbs, such as dried ivy and gingko
- yoga breathing (pranayama)
Aside from treatment, you can help decrease the incidence of asthma cough with a few lifestyle changes. For example, placing a humidifier in your room can help ease night coughs. You may also have to limit outdoor activities if the air quality is poor.
You should also avoid irritants and triggers that can worsen your cough. These may include:
- cigarette smoke
- chemicals and cleaners
- cold air
- low humidity
- pet dander
- viral infections
If your asthma is exacerbated by allergies, you may also need to prevent and treat allergen exposure first before your asthma symptoms get better.
Asthma itself isn’t curable. Still, the symptoms can be managed to help you lead a more comfortable lifestyle. Treating asthmatic symptoms like cough is also important in preventing lung damage, especially in children. With proper management, your cough should eventually ease up so you can achieve some normalcy once again. Be sure to call your doctor if your asthmatic cough continues despite treatment.