Coughing is an important way to keep your throat and airways clear. However, too much coughing may mean you have a disease or disorder.
Some coughs are dry. Others are considered 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 suddenly 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.
Recent upper airway infections, such as the common cold and flu, can cause coughs. Other common causes include:
- ACE inhibitors (medications used to control blood pressure)
- Allergic rhinosinusitis (inflammation of the nose or sinuses)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis)
- Cigarette smoking
- Exposure to secondhand smoke
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Lung disease such as bronchiectasis, interstitial lung disease, or tumors
- Lung infections such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis
- Sinusitis leading to postnasal drip
If a child has a barking cough, see croup.
Although coughing can be a troubling symptom, it is usually your body's way of healing. 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. Both these things increase the moisture in the air and can help soothe a dry throat.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Liquids help thin the mucus in your throat and make it easier to cough it up.
NOTE: Medical experts have recommended against using cough and cold drugs in children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cough medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely will not work for children, and they may have serious side effects.
Medications available without a prescription 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. Do NOT give children under age 6 an over-the-counter decongestant unless specifically told to do so by your doctor. You should check with your doctor before taking decongestants if you have high blood pressure.
Do not expect a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for viral infections like colds or flu. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. Antibiotics also will not help coughs from allergies.
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 you have:
- A history of heart disease, swelling in your legs, or a cough that gets worse when you lie down (may be signs of congestive heart failure)
- Been exposed to someone with tuberculosis
- Cough in an infant younger than 3 months old
- Cough that lasts longer than 10-14 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)
- Unintentional weight loss or night sweats (could be tuberculosis)
- Violent cough that begins suddenly
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
In an emergency, you will be treated first to stabilize the condition. After the condition is stable, the doctor will ask questions 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?
- 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 do an examination of your ears, nose, throat, and chest.
Tests that may be performed include:
- Chest x-ray
- Chest CT scan
- Lung scan
- Pulmonary function tests (including oximetry)
- Sputum analysis (if the cough produces sputum)
- Don't smoke and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- If you have seasonal allergies like hay fever, stay indoors during days when airborne allergens are high. If possible, keep the windows closed and use an air conditioner. Avoid 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.
Chang AB, Glomb WB. Guidelines for evaluating chronic cough in pediatrics: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129(1 Suppl):260S-283S.
Chung KF, Widdicombe JG. Cough. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 29.
Irwin RS, Baumann MH, Bolser DC, et al. Diagnosis and management of cough executive summary: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129(1 Suppl):1S-23S.
Review Date: 5/25/2011
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, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.