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 there are a number of conditions that
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 three and eight weeks,
improving by the end of that period, is a subacute cough.
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 results from a number of conditions,
both temporary and permanent.
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 breathing easier.
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively
infrequent, but coughing will increase with exposure to irritants such as
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 time to clear up.
Smoking is the second most 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 lung” or “smoker’s cough.”
The most common cause of coughing in young
children is asthma. Typically, asthmatic coughing involves wheezing, making it
easy to identify. Mild cases of asthma may just be observed, but more severe
cases will require treatment using an inhaler. It is 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 known
as Zestril and Vasotec. The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued.
Other conditions that may cause a cough
- 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
common condition that can cause 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
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
If additional symptoms develop, such as a
fever, chest pains, headaches, drowsiness, or confusion, contact your doctor as
soon as possible.
Coughing up blood or breathing difficulties
require immediate emergency medical attention.
How Is a Cough Treated?
There are a variety of ways to treat a cough,
depending on the cause. For healthy adults, most treatments will involve
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
- Elevate your head with extra
pillows when sleeping.
- Use cough drops to soothe your throat.
- Gargle hot salt water regularly
to remove mucus and soothe your throat.
- Avoid irritants, including smoke
- 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 your
doctor looking down your throat, listening to the cough, and asking about any
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. She 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. Some of the testing these specialists may use
includes 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, doctors may
prescribe cough suppressants.
What’s the Outcome if Left Untreated?
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:
- fractured ribs
These are very rare, and they will normally
cease when the cough disappears.
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
While infrequent coughing is necessary to
clear the airways, there are ways you can prevent catching other coughs.
Smoking is the most common cause for 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 to
adjust 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 not share
cutlery, towels, or pillows.
If you have existing medical conditions that
increase the chances of developing a cough, such as GERD or asthma, consult
your doctor about different management strategies. Once correctly managed, you
may find that your cough disappears, or it may become much less frequent.