When it comes to cardiovascular exercise, running is one of the top picks for fitness enthusiasts of all levels. Not only does it burn calories, strengthen your heart, and improve endurance, but it also reduces your risk of mortality.
With all these fantastic benefits, you might be wondering why a bout of coughing may accompany your outdoor running excursions.
Coughing after running is relatively common in runners of all abilities. In fact, some causes of coughing don’t differentiate between running or fitness levels.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms. Ask yourself how often they occur, and if you’re able to get relief with at-home treatments. With your symptoms in mind, here are six reasons why you might be coughing after running.
1. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction
If your coughing is chronic and not caused by illness or another medical condition, you may be dealing with a temporary constriction of your airways.
“Typically, a transient cough after running is caused by a hyperreactive response (from the lungs) to an increased heart rate that occurs with activities such as exercise,” said Dr. David Erstein, a board certified allergist and immunologist working with Advanced Dermatology PCS.
Simply stated, your airways temporarily constrict, which can cause you to cough. This is referred to as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAII).
“EIB typically peaks approximately 10 to 15 minutes after beginning to exercise and resolves within 60 minutes,” said Erstein. This is different from a prolonged response you might see with asthma. Symptoms of cough are common in EIB but may also include shortness of breath and chest tightness.
2. Seasonal allergies
Seasonal allergies are another possible trigger for coughing after running.
If you run outdoors when the pollen count is high, you may experience sneezing, wheezing, and coughing. That’s because pollen is the most obvious springtime allergy offender, according to the American Lung Association. And if you have asthma and allergies, a reaction can make it more difficult to breathe.
3. Postnasal drip
The common cold, allergies, sinus infections, or irritants in the air are all possible triggers of postnasal drip.
Postnasal drip causes a steady trickle of mucus from the back of the sinuses. When this happens, your throat becomes irritated, and you end up with a cough. Running outdoors can result in excess postnasal drip, making this cough worse.
4. Acid reflux
Erstein says laryngopharyngeal reflux, a type of acid reflux, is another reason people may cough during exercise. This happens when the acids of your stomach creep up to your throat and induce cough.
Unlike the cough with EIB, this one is a chronic, long-term cough.
5. Running in cold weather
When you run outdoors in cold, dry weather, symptoms of EIB or a chronic cough can be triggered by quickly breathing in air that’s drier than what’s already in your body.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, this causes a loss of heat, water, or both from your lungs, resulting in cough, wheezing, or feeling short of breath while exercising.
6. Vocal cord dysfunction
When the vocal cords don’t open correctly, your doctor may diagnose you with vocal cord dysfunction. According to the ACAII, this can cause symptoms such as:
- difficulty breathing at rest
- difficulty breathing while engaging in a physical activity like running
Getting a proper diagnosis from your doctor is key to treating a cough, especially since the cause of coughing after running can range from a medical condition to environmental factors.
“Your doctor will go through your medical history and ask pertinent questions that can help differentiate the cause of the cough,” said Dr. Elizabeth Barchi, a sports medicine specialist at NYU Langone Sports Health.
If your doctor believes you may have EIB, Erstein says they’ll look at the combination of compatible clinical symptoms such as exercise-related coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing. They’ll also review objective tests like lung function tests that evaluate the lungs at baseline and in response to exercise (aka exercise challenge).
Although having an asthma diagnosis makes you more prone to developing EIB,
Most of the triggers that cause coughing after running can be prevented or controlled. With that in mind, here are some of the best ways to tackle that post-run cough.
Avoid running in cold weather
Since dry or cold air can cause airway hyperresponsiveness, Erstein says running when it’s warm outside or more humid can help. If you do choose to head outdoors in the cold weather, be sure to wear a mask or scarf to cover your mouth and nose.
Consider running indoors
If seasonal allergies like pollen are the reason you’re coughing after running, you may want to head indoors and run on a treadmill or indoor track.
Although it’s not ideal — especially when the weather is nice — alternating indoor and outdoor running can help reduce the severity of your allergy symptoms. Additionally, before you head outdoors, make sure to check the air quality. If the pollen count is high, stay inside.
Use an inhaler
Aside from prevention methods, Erstein says sometimes EIB is treated with albuterol, a short-acting medication that can temporarily open up the airways. An inhaler is recommended for use 15 to 20 minutes before exercise.
Wear a face covering
If bouts of coughing are getting in the way of your training program, you may want to consider wearing a face covering on your next run. Using a face mask or other covering can help keep the air moist and filter out large particles, Barchi says.
Rest if you’re sick
If you’re coughing because you’re sick from a respiratory illness, Barchi says to take the time to rest from running and to instead work on stretching or light strength training while your body recovers.
Use OTC medications
When your cough is caused by postnasal drip, you may want to consider an over-the-counter (OTC) oral decongestant, antihistamine, or guaifenesin, which thins the mucus. If you’re not sure which one is appropriate, talk to your pharmacist or doctor before taking any of these products.
Occasional coughing after running, especially if it’s related to seasonal allergies or postnasal drip, is something you can manage on your own. But if symptoms are prolonged or more than mild, you should see a doctor.
Call a doctor right away if…
If your cough is accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as high fever, heart palpations, or shortness of breath, seek emergency medical attention.
If you’re struggling to breathe, call 911.
Coughing after running is fairly common, and in general, doesn’t indicate a significant health problem. That said, if you’ve tried at-home modifications such as skipping running when the pollen count is high or wearing a face covering, you may want to consider a trip to a doctor.
They’ll be able to take a health history and determine if you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. As always, don’t hesitate to call a doctor’s office if you have any concerns about your health.