Coughing may seem like a symptom you want to relieve, but, in the case of COPD, it actually serves a function.

Read on to learn more about how COPD and coughing are related, what you can do to ease a cough, and when to seek medical attention.

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you’ll likely experience one or more of the following four symptoms:

People tend to find coughing the most disruptive of these symptoms.

Coughing can interfere with social events, such as going to the movies, and it can prevent you from falling asleep at night.

Many people go to their doctor or an urgent care center seeking relief from the chronic coughing associated with COPD.

As annoying as this coughing may be, it actually serves a useful function. Deep coughing clears the mucus that clogs your airways, allowing you to breathe more easily.

Some doctors teach their patients how to cough and encourage them to do so often.

Other experts even go a step further and advise against doing anything to stop the coughing, as a clear airway means easier breathing in the long run.

If you’ve had COPD for a while, you probably know how much you usually cough.

If you find yourself coughing more than usual, or coughing up sputum that looks different than it normally does, it may be time to go to the doctor to make sure you’re not having a flare-up or an exacerbation.

An increase in coughing can have several causes. Your body may be producing more sputum or mucus. Exposure to irritants, especially cigarette smoke or harsh fumes, can also increase coughing.

You may also be coughing more because you’ve developed a comorbidity, which means another illness exists alongside your COPD.

Examples of comorbidities include infections such as pneumonia or influenza, or issues such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

When you lie down, GERD can push stomach acid into your throat and mouth and cause you to cough.

If your increased coughing is due to a comorbidity, you can use antibiotics or medications to return to your regular level of coughing.

Don’t make any assumptions, though — speak to your doctor, who’ll make a diagnosis and prescribe you the right medication.

If you smoke, the most important step is to stop smoking. Quitting will put an end to “smoker’s cough,” the dry, hacking cough common among people who smoke tobacco.

A deep, productive cough that clears the airways of mucus may replace this dry cough.

Drugs for coughing

Short- or long-acting inhaled beta-agonists such as albuterol or salmeterol (Serevent Diskus) will sometimes help decrease coughing.

Beta-agonists are a type of bronchodilator that helps open your airways and get more oxygen into your lungs.

Long-acting bronchodilators are sometimes used in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid. Advair and Symbicort are examples of combination medications.

Some researchers have studied the effectiveness of cough syrup with codeine.

Although a few small studies showed a significant reduction in coughing, other studies were unable to reproduce that result. Long-term use of codeine can be addictive.

Using cough syrup and codeine to manage coughing is a decision that needs to be made by you and your doctor.

Other COPD drugs

There are other medications that are important for COPD management but don’t affect the cough. These include:

Both prednisone and tiotropium can help reduce cough due to COPD exacerbations.

COPD includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis classically results in coughing and excess mucus production. Emphysema classically results in shortness of breath due to progressive destruction of alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs.

Shortness of breath rather than a cough is the most prominent symptom of emphysema. However, most patients with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis and therefore cough.

Although coughing is a primary symptom of COPD, surprisingly little research has been done on controlling it or even on whether or not it should be controlled.

If coughing interferes with your quality of life, talk to your doctor to find treatment options.


What coughing technique can help bring up mucus in chronic cough?


A: Here’s a coughing technique, called huff cough, to bring up mucus that won’t wear you out. This can be helpful in those with an ongoing cough due to COPD or other chronic lung conditions. It’s helpful to work with your doctor or respiratory therapist when learning this technique.

  1. Sit up straight in a chair with your head up.
  2. Breathe in using your abdomen and hold for 2 or 3 seconds.
  3. With the back of your throat open, let out your air in a burst, making a “ha” sound.
  4. Do 2 to 3 huff breaths, then rest for 5 to 10 breaths.
  5. Repeat this in cycles.

The larger the breath, the more effective it is for smaller airways.

— Judith Marcin, MD

Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.