A cough can be caused by several conditions, both temporary and permanent.
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 breathing easier.
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 (lisinopril) and Vasotec (enalapril). The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include:
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.
Risk factors for developing a chronic cough are:
Coughing is a symptom. We can classify a cough by its duration (how long it lasts) and by other specific features:
A cough can be the only sign of an illness or it can occur with symptoms of certain diseases of the lung, heart, stomach and nervous system. Some of the symptoms that commonly occur with a cough are:
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. Your doctor may also order tests to look for the cause of your cough.
However, many doctors opt to start treatment for one of the common causes of cough rather than ordering expensive tests. If the treatment doesn't work, however, you may undergo testing for less common causes.
Lung function tests
These simple, noninvasive tests are used to diagnose asthma and COPD. They measure how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale.
Your doctor may request an asthma challenge test, which checks how well you can breathe before and after inhaling the drug methacholine (Provocholine).
If the mucus that you cough up is colored, your doctor may want to test a sample of it for bacteria.
If your doctor isn't able to find an explanation for your cough, special scope tests may be considered to look for possible causes.
These tests use a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera. With a bronchoscope, your doctor can look at your lungs and air passages. A biopsy can also be taken from the inside lining of your airway (mucosa) to look for abnormalities.
With a rhinoscope, your doctor can view your nasal passages to look for upper airway causes of cough.
A chest X-ray and spirometry,
at a minimum, are typically ordered to find the cause of a cough in a
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:
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
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.