Coughing is an important way to keep your throat and airways clear. But too much coughing may mean you have a disease or disorder.
Some coughs are dry. Others are productive. A productive cough is one that brings up mucus. Mucus is also called phlegm or sputum.
Coughs can be either acute or chronic:
- Acute coughs usually begin rapidly and are often due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection. They usually go away after 3 weeks.
- Subacute coughs last 3 to 8 weeks.
- Chronic coughs last longer than 3 weeks.
Common causes of coughing are:
- Allergies that involve the nose or sinuses
- Asthma and COPD (emphysema or chronic bronchitis)
- The common cold and flu
- Lung infections such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis
- Sinusitis with postnasal drip
Other causes include:
- ACE inhibitors (medication used to treat highblood pressure, heart failure, or kidney diseases)
- Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Lung cancer
- Lung disease such as bronchiectasis or interstitial lung disease
If you have asthma or another chronic lung disease, make sure you are taking medicines prescribed by your doctor.
Here are some tips to help ease your cough:
- If you have a dry, tickling cough, try cough drops or hard candy. Never give these to a child under age 3, because they can cause choking.
- Use a vaporizer or take a steamy shower. These increase moisture in the air and help soothe a dry throat.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Liquids help thin the mucus in your throat making it easier to cough it up.
- Do not smoke and stay away from secondhand smoke
Medicines you can buy on your own include:
- Guaifenesin helps break up mucus. Drink lots of fluids if you take this medicine.
- Decongestants help clear a runny nose and relieve postnasal drip. Check with your doctor before taking decongestants if you have high blood pressure.
- Talk to your child’s doctor before you give a child 6 years old or younger an over-the-counter cough medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely do not work for children, and can have serious side effects.
If you have seasonal allergies, such as hay fever:
- Stay indoors during days or times of the day (usually the morning) when airborne allergens are high.
- Keep windows closed and use an air conditioner.
- Do not use fans that draw in air from outdoors.
- Shower and change your clothes after being outside.
If you have allergies year-round, cover your pillows and mattress with dust mite covers, use an air purifier, and avoid pets and other triggers.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 if you have:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Hives or a swollen face or throat with difficulty swallowing
Call your doctor right away if a person with cough has any of the following:
- Heart disease, swelling in your legs, or a cough that gets worse when you lie down (may be signs of heart failure)
- Have come into contact with someone who has tuberculosis
- Unintentional weight loss or night sweats (could be tuberculosis)
- An infant younger than 3 months old who has a cough
- Cough lasts longer than 10 to 14 days
- Cough that produces blood
- Fever (may be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics)
- High-pitched sound (called stridor) when breathing in
- Thick, foul-smelling, yellowish-green phlegm (could be a bacterial infection)
- Violent cough that begins rapidly
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The health care provider will ask about your cough, including:
- Are you coughing up blood? (How much, how often)
- Do you bring up any mucus/sputum when you cough? What does it look like? Is it thick and hard to cough up? How much sputum do you produce per day?
- Is the cough severe? Is the cough dry?
- Do you have a fever?
- Does the cough sound like a seal barking?
- What is the pattern of the cough? Did it begin suddenly? Has it been increasing recently? Is the cough worse at night? When you first wake up?
- How long has the cough lasted?
- Is the cough worse when you are lying on one side?
- Do you have sudden attacks of coughing with gagging and vomiting?
- What other symptoms do you have?
The health care provider will examine your ears, nose, throat, and chest.
Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 83.
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.