Coughs - Topic Overview
Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign material or mucus from the
lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs
have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom,
not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can be determined only
when other symptoms are evaluated.
For information about coughs in
children, see the topic
Coughs, Age 11 and Younger.
A productive cough produces phlegm
or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from
the nose or sinuses or may have come up
from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed—it
clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such
- Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a
productive cough when you have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by
mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
- Infections. An
infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A productive
cough may be a symptom of
- Chronic lung disease. A
productive cough could be a sign that a disease such as
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is
getting worse or that you have an infection.
- Stomach acid backing
up into the
esophagus . This type of coughing may be a symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken
you from sleep.
- Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the
throat. This can cause a productive cough or the
feeling that you constantly need to clear your throat. Experts disagree about
whether a postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for
- Smoking or other tobacco use. Productive coughs in a
person who smokes or uses other forms of tobacco is often a sign of lung damage
or irritation of the throat or esophagus.
A nonproductive cough is dry and
does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a
cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many
causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
- Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry
cough may last several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at
- Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough,
particularly at night, may mean spasms in the bronchial tubes
(bronchospasm) caused by irritation.
- Allergies. Frequent sneezing
is also a common symptom of
- Medicines called ACE
inhibitors that are used to control
high blood pressure. Examples of ACE inhibitors
include captopril (Capoten), enalapril maleate (Vasotec), and lisinopril
(Prinivil, Zestoretic, or Zestril).
to dust, fumes, and chemicals in the work environment.
- Asthma. A
chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include
wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more
information, see the topic
Asthma in Teens and Adults.
- Blockage of
the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill. For more information,
see the topic
Swallowed or Inhaled Objects.