A cough is a common reflex action that clears the throat of
mucus or foreign irritants. Coughing to clear the throat is typically an
infrequent action, although a number of conditions can cause more frequent
bouts of coughing.
In general, a cough that lasts for less than three weeks is
an acute cough.
A cough that lasts
between 3 and 8 weeks, improving by the end of that period, is a subacute
A persistent cough that lasts more than eight weeks is a chronic cough.
Most cough episodes will clear up, or at least significantly
improve, within two weeks. If you cough up blood or have a “barking” cough,
talk to your doctor. Any cough that hasn’t improved after a few weeks may be
serious, and you should see a doctor.
What causes a cough?
A cough can be caused by several conditions, both temporary
Clearing the throat
A cough is a standard way of clearing the 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
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively infrequent, but
coughing will increase with exposure to irritants such as smoke.
Viruses and bacteria
The most common cause of
a cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or flu. 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 may
sometimes require antibiotics.
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 “smoker’s cough.”
A common cause of
coughing in young children is asthma.
Typically, asthmatic coughing involves wheezing, making it easy to identify. 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 brands are Zestril
and Vasotec (enalapril).
The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include:
to the vocal cords
infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup
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, such as a fever, chest
pains, headaches, drowsiness, or confusion, contact your doctor as soon as
up blood or having difficulty breathing require immediate emergency medical
How is a cough treated?
A cough 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:
hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
your head with extra pillows when sleeping.
cough drops to soothe your throat.
hot salt water regularly to remove mucus and soothe your throat.
irritants, including smoke and dust.
honey or ginger to hot tea to relieve your cough and clear your airway.
decongestant sprays to unblock your nose and ease breathing.
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, along with blood and skin tests if they suspect
an allergic response. In some cases, phlegm or mucus may be analyzed 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. A CT scan offers a more
in-depth view of the airways and chest, and it can be useful when determining
the cause of the cough. If the CT scan doesn’t show the cause, your doctor may
refer you to a gastrointestinal (GI) 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.
What’s the outcome if left
In most cases, a cough will disappear naturally within a
week or two after it first develops. A cough won’t typically cause any
long-lasting damage or symptoms.
In some cases, a severe cough may cause temporary
complications such as:
These are very rare, and they will normally cease when the
A cough that is 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.
What preventive measures can
be taken to avoid a cough?
While infrequent coughing is necessary to clear the airways,
there are ways you can prevent catching 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 such as electronic cigarettes to advice groups and
support networks. After you stop smoking, you will be much less likely to catch
colds or suffer from a chronic cough.
A study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine
found that people who eat diets high in fruit, fiber, and flavonoids are less
likely to suffer from chronic coughs. If you need help adjusting your diet,
your doctor may be able to advise you or refer you to a dietitian.
It’s advisable to stay away from anyone suffering from
contagious illnesses, such as bronchitis, to avoid
coming into contact with germs. You should wash your hands frequently, and you
shouldn’t share cutlery, 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 correctly managed,
you may find that your cough disappears, or it may become much less frequent.