Why You Cough

Got a cough? Experts say it's the top reason people see a doctor -- more than 30 million 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.

What Causes It?

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 the flu are the most common causes. 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 could be because coughing irritates your lungs, which leads to more coughing, which irritates your lungs, and so on ...
  • Allergies and asthma . If you have them, inhaling a trigger like mold can cause your lungs to overreact. They're trying to cough out what’s bothering them.
  • Irritants. Even if you're not allergic, things like cold air, cigarette smoke, or strong perfumes, can set off a hacking spell.
  • Acid reflux . When you have heartburn, stomach acids back up into your throat, especially at night. They can irritate your windpipe and make you cough.
  • Other causes. Many other problems -- lung inflammation, sleep apnea, and drug side effects -- can be triggers. Get coughs that won't go away checked out to make sure you don’t have a separate problem.

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What Can You Do to Treat It?

That depends on the cause. Options include:

  • Medicines. Over-the-counter cough remedies can help in a number of ways. Suppressants lessen your urge to cough. Expectorants thin mucus and make it easier to hack up.
  • Home remedies. You can drink warm fluids, inhale warm, moist air, and use cough drops. Add a spoonful of honey to hot tea, or choose a cough drop that has it. Never give honey to a child under a year old -- it can make them very sick.
  • Avoid triggers. If you have allergies or asthma, remove allergens from your home. Keep pets out of your bedroom. Use air conditioners to filter air during pollen season. You won’t see the effects right away, but if you stay away from what bothers you, 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. Common viruses are the most likely causes. Sometimes, the cough can last weeks or months after the virus is gone. Over time your airways will heal and the cough will stop.

When to See a Doctor

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

See him as soon as you can if your cough interferes with your daily life and ability to work, or if it comes with any of these other symptoms:

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on October 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer, American Lung Association; professor of medicine, Stony Brook University Medical Center, Stony Brook, N.Y.

Donald R. Rollins, MD, associate professor, pulmonary division, National Jewish Health, Denver, Colo.

American Thoracic Society: "Cough."

Irwin, R. Chest, January 2006.

Morice, A. Thorax, September 2006.

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: "Post-Nasal Drip."

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