Chronic cough is when you have a cough that lasts for eight weeks or longer. The treatment depends on the cause. A home remedy may be sufficient, or you may need to see a doctor for medical treatment.
Most coughs are short-lived. You may catch a virus, cough for a few days or weeks, and then you’ll start to feel better.
Less often, a cough lingers for several weeks, months, or even years. A cough that lasts 8 weeks or more is called a chronic cough.
Coughing might sometimes be uncomfortable, but it actually serves a useful purpose. When you cough, you bring up mucus and foreign material from your airways that can irritate your lungs. Coughing can also be in response to inflammation or illness.
Even chronic coughs often have a treatable cause. They can result from conditions like postnasal drip or allergies. Only rarely are they a symptom of cancer or other potentially life threatening lung conditions.
A chronic cough can have a big impact on your life, though. It can keep you awake at night and distract you from work and your social life. That’s why you should have your doctor check out any cough that lasts for more than a few weeks.
The most common causes of a chronic cough are:
- asthma, especially cough-variant asthma, which causes a cough as the main symptom
- acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- upper airway cough syndrome, which is sometimes related to postnasal drip
- nonasthmatic eosinophilic bronchitis, which involves inflammation in your airways
- angiotensin-converting enzymes (ACE) inhibitors, which are medications used to treat high blood pressure
- environmental triggers, such as dust or animal dander
- bacterial bronchitis (in children)
Other causes include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- bronchospasm, which can occur after lung infections, such as pneumonia
- whooping cough (pertussis)
- inhaling a foreign object (in children)
Rarer causes for a chronic cough include:
- bronchiolitis, which is an infection and inflammation of the bronchioles, the tiny air passages in the lungs
- cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition that damages the lungs and other organs by causing thick secretions
- interstitial lung disease, a condition that involves scarring of lung tissue
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- sarcoidosis, which consists of clusters of inflamed cells, known as granulomas, that form in the lungs and other parts of the body
Along with the cough, you might have other symptoms, depending on the cause. Common symptoms that often go along with a chronic cough include:
- postnasal drip, or a feeling of liquid dripping down the back of your throat
- hoarse voice
- runny nose
- sore throat
- stuffed nose
- shortness of breath
More serious symptoms are rare, but call a doctor if you:
Chronic cough can affect your quality of life. The cough itself can be uncomfortable, and having a symptom that won’t go away can be frustrating.
Potential complications of a chronic cough include:
It may help to know that chronic cough often has a treatable cause. The first step is talking with your doctor. They can help you get you started with a treatment plan to relieve or manage your cough.
While chronic cough has many different underlying causes, there are several risk factors and conditions that increase the likelihood of developing it. These include:
See your doctor if your cough lasts for more than a few weeks. Also, call them if you experience symptoms like unplanned weight loss, fever, coughing up blood, or having trouble sleeping.
During your appointment, your doctor will ask about your cough and other symptoms. Depending on your symptoms, they may request certain tests, such as:
- Acid reflux tests measures the amount of acid in the fluid inside your esophagus.
- Spirometry is a lung function test that measures airflow in and out of your lungs.
- Endoscopy uses a flexible, lighted instrument to look into the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
- Sputum cultures check the mucus you cough up for bacteria and other infections.
- Pulmonary function tests measure how well your lungs are working.
- Imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans, can help a doctor see your chest and airways.
- Allergy tests can help diagnose environmental allergies that could be causing a reaction.
- Blood tests can look for signs of infection or other conditions.
The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you need help finding a primary care doctor.
Treatment will depend on the cause of your cough. Some of the more common causes include:
Your doctor may recommend changes to your diet and lifestyle. They may also recommend medications to neutralize, reduce, or block acid production. Reflux medicines include:
You can get some of these drugs over-the-counter (OTC). Others will require a prescription from your doctor.
Drugs used to treat asthma can include inhaled steroids and bronchodilators, which require a prescription. These medicines bring down swelling in the airways and widen narrowed air passages to help you breathe more easily.
You may need to take them every day, long term, to prevent asthma attacks or as needed to stop attacks when they happen.
Bronchodilators and inhaled steroids are also used to treat chronic bronchitis and other forms of COPD.
Antibiotics can help treat pneumonia or other bacterial infections, such as whooping cough.
- Speech therapy: Speech therapy may be effective in lowering the severity of a chronic cough. Your doctor can provide you with a referral to a speech therapist.
- OTC cough suppressants: Cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan (Mucinex, Robitussin) may help relax the cough reflex.
- Prescription cough suppressants: If OTC options don’t help, your doctor may prescribe a medication, such as benzonatate (Tessalon). This numbs the cough reflex.
- Gabapentin: The prescription medication gabapentin (Neurontin), an antiseizure medicine, has been found to be helpful in some people with chronic cough.
- Narcotic cough medications: Some prescription cough medicines contain narcotics, such as codeine or hydrocodone. Though these medicines can help calm your cough, they can cause serious side effects.
Depending on what’s causing your cough, these tips may help you manage it:
- Drink lots of water. The extra fluid will loosen and thin mucus. Warm liquids like tea and broth can be especially soothing to your throat.
- Suck on a cough lozenge.
- If you have acid reflux, try to avoid overeating and eating within 2 to 3 hours before bed. Losing weight can help as well, if overweight or obesity is contributing to symptoms.
- Turn on a humidifier to add moisture to the air, or take a hot shower and breathe in the steam.
- Use a saline nose spray or a nasal irrigation device, such as a neti pot. The salt water will loosen up and help drain the mucus that’s making you cough.
- If you smoke, consider asking your doctor for advice on how to quit.
Your outlook will depend on what caused your chronic cough, and how it needs to be treated. Often coughs will go away with the right treatment.
If you’ve been dealing with a cough for more than a few weeks, see your doctor. Once you know what’s causing the cough, you can take steps to treat it.