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.
The common cold most often causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms....Read Article Now Book Mark Article
The flu is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It spreads easily from person to person. This article discusses influenza types A and B. A ...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Subacute coughs last 3 to 8 weeks.
- Chronic coughs last longer than 8 weeks.
Common causes of coughing are:
- Allergies that involve the nose or sinuses
An allergy is an immune response or reaction to substances that are usually not harmful.Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Asthma and COPD (emphysema or chronic bronchitis)
Asthma is a chronic disease that causes the airways of the lungs to swell and narrow. It leads to breathing difficulty such as wheezing, shortness o...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common lung disease. Having COPD makes it hard to breathe. There are two main forms of COPD:Chroni...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- The common cold and flu
- Lung infections such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis
Pneumonia is a breathing (respiratory) condition in which there is an infection of the lung. This article covers community-acquired pneumonia (CAP). ...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Sinusitis with postnasal drip
Sinusitis is present when the tissue lining the sinuses become swollen or inflamed. It occurs as the result of an inflammatory reaction or an infect...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which the stomach contents leak backward from the stomach into the esophagus (food pipe). F...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
Other causes include:
- ACE inhibitors (medicines used to treat high blood pressure, heart failure, or kidney diseases)
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are medicines. They treat heart, blood vessel, and kidney problems.Read Article Now Book Mark Article
High blood pressure
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force exerted against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood to your body. Hypertension is the ...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
Chronic kidney disease is the slow loss of kidney function over time. The main job of the kidneys is to remove wastes and excess water from the body...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke (or smoking other substances like marijuana)
- Lung cancer
Lung cancer is cancer that starts in the lungs. The lungs are located in the chest. When you breathe, air goes through your nose, down your windpipe...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Lung disease such as bronchiectasis or interstitial lung disease
Bronchiectasis is a disease in which the large airways in the lungs are damaged. This causes the airways to become permanently wider. Bronchiectasis...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
Interstitial lung disease
Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is a group of lung disorders in which the lung tissues become inflamed and then damaged.Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Sometimes no specific cause is found
If you have asthma or another chronic lung disease, make sure you are taking medicines prescribed by your health care provider.
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 to 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. Follow package instructions on how much to take. Do not take more than the recommended amount. Drink lots of fluids if you take this medicine.
- Decongestants help clear a runny nose and relieve postnasal drip. Check with your provider before taking decongestants if you have high blood pressure.
- Talk to your child's provider before you give children ages 6 years 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 with fur and other triggers.
Treat the underlying cause (per above) as directed by your health care provider.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 or the local emergency number if you have:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Hives or a swollen face or throat with difficulty swallowing
Hives are raised, often itchy, red bumps (welts) on the surface of the skin. They can be an allergic reaction to food or medicine. They can also ap...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
Call your provider 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)
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is no longer able to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body efficiently. This causes symptom...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- 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)
Fever is the temporary increase in the body's temperature in response to a disease or illness. A child has a fever when the temperature is at or abov...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- High-pitched sound (called stridor) when breathing in
Stridor is an abnormal, high-pitched, musical breathing sound. It is caused by a blockage in the throat or voice box (larynx). It is most often hea...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Thick, foul-smelling, yellowish-green phlegm (could be a bacterial infection)
- Violent cough that begins rapidly
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The provider will perform a physical exam. You will be asked about your cough. Questions may include:
- When the cough began
- What it sounds like
- If there is pattern to it
- What makes it better or worse
- If you have other symptoms, such as a fever
The provider will examine your ears, nose, throat, and chest.
Tests that may be done include:
- Chest x-ray or CT scan
A chest x-ray is an x-ray of the chest, lungs, heart, large arteries, ribs, and diaphragm.Read Article Now Book Mark Article
A chest CT (computed tomography) scan is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create cross-sectional pictures of the chest and upper abdomen....Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Lung function tests
Lung function tests
Pulmonary function tests are a group of tests that measure breathing and how well the lungs are functioning.Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Blood tests
- Tests to check the heart, such as an echocardiogram
An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to create pictures of the heart. The picture and information it produces is more detailed than a s...Read Article Now Book Mark Article
- Gastroesophageal reflux evaluation tests (for example barium swallow)
Treatment depends on the cause of the cough.
Chung KF, Mazzone SB. Cough. In: Broaddus VC, King TE, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 37.
Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 77.
Lungs - illustration
The major features of the lungs include the bronchi, the bronchioles and the alveoli. The alveoli are the microscopic blood vessel-lined sacks in which oxygen and carbon dioxide gas are exchanged.
Review Date: 5/30/2021
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Paul F. Harron Jr. Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.