A cough isn’t usually concerning unless it lingers for more than two weeks or you have additional symptoms such as difficulty breathing.
Coughing is a common reflex 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.
Most episodes of coughing will clear up or at least significantly improve within 2 weeks. Contact a doctor or healthcare professional if your cough doesn’t improve within a few weeks. This could indicate a more serious condition.
Also, contact a doctor if you cough up blood or have a “barking” cough.
Did you know?
A cough that lasts for less than 3 weeks is an acute cough. If a cough lasts between 3 and 8 weeks, improving by the end of that period, it’s considered a subacute cough. A persistent cough that lasts more than 8 weeks is a chronic cough.
There are several possible causes of a cough.
Urge to clear your 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 serves as a reflexive reaction that helps 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.
Respiratory tract infections are usually caused by a virus and may last for 1 to 2 weeks. Antiviral medications such as those for the flu are most effective when you take them
Smoking is another common cause of coughing.
A cough caused by smoking is almost always a chronic cough with a distinctive sound. It’s often known as a smoker’s cough.
Asthma exacerbations should be treated with the use of medications to open your airway (delivered by an inhaler or a nebulizer). It’s possible for children with asthma to outgrow the condition as they get older.
Some medications will cause coughing, although it’s generally a rare side effect.
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors can cause coughing. They are often used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions.
Your coughing will stop when you quit using the medication.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include:
- damage to your 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, the contents of your stomach flow back into your esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in your trachea (windpipe), causing you to cough.
Contact a doctor if you have a cough that hasn’t cleared up or improved in 2 weeks. It may be a symptom of a more serious problem.
Get immediate medical attention if you develop additional symptoms. Symptoms to watch out for include:
A cough can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. Healthy adults will mostly be able to treat their coughs with home remedies and self-care.
A cough that results from a virus can’t be treated with antibiotics. You can soothe it in the following ways instead:
- 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.
Typically, medical care will involve a doctor looking down your throat, listening to your cough, and asking about any other symptoms.
If your cough is likely due to a bacterial infection, the doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics. They may also prescribe either cough suppressants that contain codeine or expectorant cough syrups.
If the doctor can’t determine the cause of your cough, they may order additional tests. These tests could include:
- Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray helps them assess whether your lungs are clear.
- Allergy tests: They’ll perform blood and skin tests if they suspect an allergic response.
- Phlegm or mucus analysis: These tests can reveal 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 your cough.
Difficult cases may require these additional tests:
- CT scan: A CT scan offers a more in-depth view of your airways and chest.
- Esophageal pH monitoring: If the CT scan doesn’t reveal the cause, the doctor may refer you to a gastrointestinal or pulmonary (lung) specialist. One of the tests these specialists may perform is esophageal pH monitoring, which looks for evidence of GERD.
In cases where the previous tests are either not possible or extremely unlikely to be successful, or your cough is expected to resolve without treatment, doctors may prescribe cough suppressants.
In most cases, a cough will disappear naturally within 1 or 2 weeks 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 stop when your 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.
Infrequent coughing is necessary to clear your airways. But 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 if you decide to quit smoking, from gadgets to advice groups and support networks. If you quit smoking, you’ll be much less likely to catch colds or experience a chronic cough.
In addition, guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians suggest that adults with GERD may reduce their cough by avoiding eating within 3 hours of their bedtime.
If you need help adjusting your diet, a doctor may be able to advise you or refer you to a dietitian.
If you can, avoid anyone with a contagious illness such as bronchitis. This will reduce your chances of 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, ask a doctor about different management strategies. Once you manage your condition, you may find that your cough disappears or becomes much less frequent.