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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Why You Cough

Got a cough? Experts say they're the top reason people see a doctor -- more than 30 million doctor visits a year. Your first step toward relief is to find out the cause. Then consider your symptoms. With that info, you can choose the best treatment.

Triggers

A cough is supposed to protect you. It gets out stuff that doesn't belong in your lungs and windpipe, like inhaled dirt or food. Here are the common triggers.

  • Viruses. Colds and flu are the most common triggers. While annoying, coughs that are “productive” get germy mucus out of your lungs when you're sick. Most will go away in a few days. After a cold, though, some "dry" coughs last weeks or months. That's possibly because coughing irritates your lungs, which leads to more coughing, which irritates your lungs, and so on...
  • Allergies and asthma. If you have allergies or asthma, inhaling allergy triggers like mold can cause your lungs to overreact. They're trying to cough the allergen out.
  • Irritants. Even if you're not allergic, some irritants, such as cold air, cigarette smoke, or strong perfumes, can be a trigger.
  • Postnasal drip. When you're congested, mucus can drip down from your nose into your throat, triggering a cough. You may develop postnasal drip from colds, flu, sinus infections, allergies, and other problems.
  • Acid reflux. When you have heartburn or acid reflux, stomach acids back up into your throat, especially at night. The acids can irritate your windpipe and cause coughing.
  • Other causes. Many other problems -- lung inflammation, sleep apnea, and drug side effects -- can be triggers. Get chronic coughs checked out to make sure you don’t have a separate problem.

 

Treatment

The best treatment depends on the cause. Options include:

  • Medicines. Cough medicines you can buy over the counter can help in a number of ways. Suppressants lessen the urge to cough. Expectorants thin the mucus, making it easier to cough up.
  • Home remedies. Drinking warm fluids, inhaling warm, moist air, and using cough drops can help. Honey can also calm a cough. You can add a spoonful to hot tea or choose a cough drop that contains honey.
  • Avoid triggers. If you have allergies or asthma, remove allergens from your home. For instance, keep pets out of your bedroom. Use air conditioners to filter air during pollen season. The effects won't be immediate, but if you can limit your exposure to the allergen, you'll start to feel better.
  • Treatment for another problem. Coughs triggered by asthma, acid reflux, sleep apnea, and other medical conditions need special treatment -- often medicine. Talk to your doctor.
  • Time. Remember, common viruses are the most likely causes. Sometimes, they can last weeks or months after the virus is gone. In most cases, the airways eventually heal and the cough goes away.

When to See a Cough Pro

Most lingering coughs are harmless. But you can't diagnose the causes on your own. If your cough isn't getting better after 1 week, it's time to call your doctor.

You should see your doctor promptly if your cough interferes with your daily life and ability to work, or if it appears with any of these other symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic heartburn
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Trouble sleeping

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 09, 2013

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