What to know about your cough
Coughing is a common reflex action that clears your throat of mucus or foreign irritants. While everyone coughs to clear their throat from time to time, a number of conditions can cause more frequent coughing.
A cough that lasts for less than three weeks is an acute cough. Most episodes of coughing will clear up or at least significantly improve within two weeks.
If your cough lasts between three and eight weeks, improving by the end of that period, it’s considered a subacute cough. A persistent cough that lasts more than eight weeks is a chronic cough.
You should see a doctor if you cough up blood or have a “barking” cough. You should also contact them if your cough hasn’t improved with a few weeks, as this could indicate something more serious.
A cough can be caused by several conditions, both temporary and permanent.
Clearing the throat
Coughing is a standard way of clearing your throat. When your airways become clogged with mucus or foreign particles such as smoke or dust, a cough is a reflex reaction that attempts to clear the particles and make breathing easier.
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively infrequent, but coughing will increase with exposure to irritants such as smoke.
Viruses and bacteria
Respiratory tract infections are usually caused by a virus and may last from a few days to a week. Infections caused by the flu may take a little longer to clear up and can sometimes require antibiotics.
Asthma exacerbations should receive treatment using an inhaler. It’s possible for children to grow out of asthma as they get older.
Some medications will cause coughing, although this is generally a rare side effect. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, can cause coughing.
Two of the more common ones are:
The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include:
- damage to the vocal cords
- postnasal drip
- bacterial infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup
- serious conditions such as pulmonary embolism and heart failure
Another common condition that can cause a chronic cough is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In this condition, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in the trachea, causing the person to cough.
Most coughs will clear up, or at least significantly improve, within two weeks. If you have a cough that hasn’t improved in this amount of time, see a doctor, as it may be a symptom of a more serious problem.
If additional symptoms develop, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms to watch out for include:
Coughing up blood or having difficulty breathing requires immediate emergency medical attention.
Coughs can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. For healthy adults, most treatments will involve self-care.
A cough that results from a virus can’t be treated with antibiotics. You can, however, soothe it in the following ways:
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- Elevate your head with extra pillows when sleeping.
- Use cough drops to soothe your throat.
- Gargle with warm salt water regularly to remove mucus and soothe your throat.
- Avoid irritants, including smoke and dust.
- Add honey or ginger to hot tea to relieve your cough and clear your airway.
- Use decongestant sprays to unblock your nose and ease breathing.
Check out more cough remedies here.
Typically, medical care will involve your doctor looking down your throat, listening to your cough, and asking about any other symptoms.
If your cough is likely due to bacteria, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics. You’ll usually need to take the medication for a week to fully cure the cough. They may also prescribe either expectorant cough syrups or cough suppressants that contain codeine.
If your doctor can’t find a cause for your cough, they may order additional tests. This could include:
- a chest X-ray to assess whether your lungs are clear
- blood and skin tests if they suspect an allergic response
- phlegm or mucus analysis for signs of bacteria or tuberculosis
It’s very rare for a cough to be the only symptom of heart problems, but a doctor may request an echocardiogram to ensure that your heart is functioning correctly and isn’t causing the cough.
Difficult cases may require additional testing:
- CT scan. A CT scan offers a more in-depth view of the airways and chest. It can be useful when determining the cause of a cough.
- Esophageal pH monitoring. If the CT scan doesn’t show the cause, your doctor may refer you to a gastrointestinal specialist or a pulmonary (lung) specialist. One of the tests these specialists may use is esophageal pH monitoring, which looks for evidence of GERD.
In cases where the previous treatments are either not possible or extremely unlikely to be successful, or the cough is expected to resolve without intervention, doctors may prescribe cough suppressants.
In most cases, a cough will disappear naturally within a week or two after it first develops. Coughing won’t typically cause any long-lasting damage or symptoms.
In some cases, a severe cough may cause temporary complications such as:
- fractured ribs
These are very rare, and they’ll normally cease when the cough disappears.
A cough that’s the symptom of a more serious condition is unlikely to go away on its own. If left untreated, the condition could worsen and cause other symptoms.
While infrequent coughing is necessary to clear the airways, there are ways you can prevent other coughs.
Smoking is a common contributor to a chronic cough. It can be very difficult to cure a smoker’s cough.
There are a wide variety of methods available to help you stop smoking, from gadgets to advice groups and support networks. After you stop smoking, you’ll be much less likely to catch colds or experience a chronic cough.
An older study in 2004 found that people who ate diets high in fruit, fiber, and flavonoids were less likely to experience chronic respiratory symptoms such as a cough.
If you need help adjusting your diet, your doctor may be able to advise you or refer you to a dietitian.
If you can, you should avoid anyone with a contagious illness, such as bronchitis, to avoid coming into contact with germs.
Wash your hands frequently and don’t share utensils, towels, or pillows.
If you have existing medical conditions that increase your chances of developing a cough, such as GERD or asthma, consult your doctor about different management strategies. Once the condition is managed, you may find that your cough disappears, or becomes much less frequent.