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What Is Cough?

A cough is a natural reflex that protects your lungs. Coughing helps clear your airways of lung irritants, such as smoke and mucus (a slimy substance). This helps prevent infections. A cough also can be a symptom of a medical problem.

Prolonged coughing can cause unpleasant side effects, such as chest pain, exhaustion, light-headedness, and loss of bladder control. Coughing also can interfere with sleep, socializing, and work.

Overview

Coughing occurs when the nerve endings in your airways become irritated. The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. Certain substances (such as smoke and pollen), medical conditions, and medicines can irritate these nerve endings.

A cough can be acute, subacute, or chronic, depending on how long it lasts.

An acute cough lasts less than 3 weeks. Common causes of an acute cough are a common cold or other upper respiratory (RES-pi-rah-tor-e) infections. Examples of other upper respiratory infections include the flu, pneumonia (nu-MO-ne-ah), and whooping cough.

A subacute cough lasts 3 to 8 weeks. This type of cough remains even after a cold or other respiratory infection is over.

A chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks. Common causes of a chronic cough are upper airway cough syndrome (UACS); asthma; and gastroesophageal (GAS-tro-eh-so-fa-JE-al) reflux disease, or GERD.

"UACS" is a term used to describe conditions that inflame the upper airways and cause a cough. Examples include sinus infections and allergies. These conditions can cause mucus to run down your throat from the back of your nose. This is called postnasal drip.

Asthma is a long-term lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. GERD occurs if acid from your stomach backs up into your throat.

Outlook

The best way to treat a cough is to treat its cause. For example, asthma is treated with medicines that open the airways.

Your doctor may recommend cough medicine if the cause of your cough is unknown and the cough causes a lot of discomfort. Cough medicines may harm children. If your child has a cough, talk with his or her doctor about how to treat it.




What Causes Cough?

Coughing occurs when the nerve endings in your airways become irritated. Certain irritants and allergens, medical conditions, and medicines can irritate these nerve endings.

Irritants and Allergens

An irritant is something you're sensitive to. For example, smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke can irritate your lungs. Smoking also can lead to medical conditions that can cause a cough. Other irritants include air pollution, paint fumes, or scented products like perfumes or air fresheners.

An allergen is something you're allergic to, such as dust, animal dander, mold, or pollens from trees, grasses, and flowers.

Coughing helps clear your airways of irritants and allergens. This helps prevent infections.

Medical Conditions

Many medical conditions can cause acute, subacute, or chronic cough.

Common causes of an acute cough are a common cold or other upper respiratory infections. Examples of other upper respiratory infections include the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough. An acute cough lasts less than 3 weeks.

A lingering cough that remains after a cold or other respiratory infection is gone often is called a subacute cough. A subacute cough lasts 3 to 8 weeks.

Common causes of a chronic cough are upper airway cough syndrome (UACS), asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). A chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks.

"UACS" is a term used to describe conditions that inflame the upper airways and cause a cough. Examples include sinus infections and allergies. These conditions can cause mucus (a slimy substance) to run down your throat from the back of your nose. This is called postnasal drip.

Asthma is a long-term lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. GERD is a condition in which acid from your stomach backs up into your throat.

Other conditions that can cause a chronic cough include:

  • Respiratory infections. A cough from an upper respiratory infection can develop into a chronic cough.
  • Chronic bronchitis (bron-KI-tis). This condition occurs if the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed. Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis.
  • Bronchiectasis (brong-ke-EK-tah-sis). This is a condition in which damage to the airways causes them to widen and become flabby and scarred. This prevents the airways from properly moving mucus out of your lungs. An infection or other condition that injures the walls of the airways usually causes bronchiectasis.
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a disease that prevents enough air from flowing in and out of the airways.
  • Lung cancer. In rare cases, a chronic cough is due to lung cancer. Most people who develop lung cancer smoke or used to smoke.
  • Heart failure. Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Fluid can build up in the body and lead to many symptoms. If fluid builds up in the lungs, it can cause a chronic cough.

Medicines

Certain medicines can cause a chronic cough. Examples of these medicines are ACE inhibitors and beta blockers. ACE inhibitors are used to treat high blood pressure (HBP). Beta blockers are used to treat HBP, migraine headaches, and glaucoma.




Who Is At Risk for Cough?

People at risk for cough include those who:

  • Are exposed to things that irritate their airways (called irritants) or things that they're allergic to (called allergens). Examples of irritants are cigarette smoke, air pollution, paint fumes, and scented products. Examples of allergens are dust, animal dander, mold, and pollens from trees, grasses, and flowers.
  • Have certain conditions that irritate the lungs, such as asthma, sinus infections, colds, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
  • Smoke. Smoking can irritate your lungs and cause coughing. Smoking and/or exposure to secondhand smoke also can lead to medical conditions that can cause a cough.
  • Take certain medicines, such as ACE inhibitors and beta blockers. ACE inhibitors are used to treat high blood pressure (HBP). Beta blockers are used to treat HBP, migraine headaches, and glaucoma.

Women are more likely than men to develop a chronic cough. For more information about the substances and conditions that put you at risk for cough, go to "What Causes Cough?"




What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cough?

When you cough, mucus (a slimy substance) may come up. Coughing helps clear the mucus in your airways from a cold, bronchitis, or other condition. Rarely, people cough up blood. If this happens, you should call your doctor right away.

A cough may be a symptom of a medical condition. Thus, it may occur with other signs and symptoms of that condition. For example, if you have a cold, you may have a runny or stuffy nose. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, you may have a sour taste in your mouth.

A chronic cough can make you feel tired because you use a lot of energy to cough. It also can prevent you from sleeping well and interfere with work and socializing. A chronic cough also can cause headaches, chest pain, loss of bladder control, sweating, and, rarely, fractured ribs.




How Is the Cause of Cough Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose the cause of your cough based on your medical history, a physical exam, and test results.

Medical History

Your doctor will likely ask questions about your cough. He or she may ask how long you've had it, whether you're coughing anything up (such as mucus, a slimy substance), and how much you cough.

Your doctor also may ask:

  • About your medical history, including whether you have allergies, asthma, or other medical conditions.
  • Whether you have heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth. These may be signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • Whether you've recently had a cold or the flu.
  • Whether you smoke or spend time around others who smoke.
  • Whether you've been around air pollution, a lot of dust, or fumes.

Physical Exam

To check for signs of problems related to cough, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. He or she will listen for wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe) or other abnormal sounds.

Diagnostic Tests

Your doctor may recommend tests based on the results of your medical history and physical exam. For example, if you have symptoms of GERD, your doctor may recommend a pH probe. This test measures the acid level of the fluid in your throat.

Other tests may include:

  • An exam of the mucus from your nose or throat. This test can show whether you have a bacterial infection.
  • A chest x ray. A chest x ray takes a picture of your heart and lungs. This test can help diagnose conditions such as pneumonia and lung cancer.
  • Lung function tests. These tests measure how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you can breathe air out, and how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood. Lung function tests can help diagnose asthma and other conditions.
  • An x ray of the sinuses. This test can help diagnose a sinus infection.



How Is Cough Treated?

The best way to treat a cough is to treat its cause. However, sometimes the cause is unknown. Other treatments, such as medicines and a vaporizer, can help relieve the cough itself.

Treating the Cause of a Cough

Acute and Subacute Cough

An acute cough lasts less than 3 weeks. Common causes of an acute cough are a common cold or other upper respiratory infections. Examples of other upper respiratory infections include the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough. An acute cough usually goes away after the illness that caused it is over.

A subacute cough lasts 3 to 8 weeks. This type of cough remains even after a cold or other respiratory infection is over.

Studies show that antibiotics and cold medicines can't cure a cold. However, your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat another cause of an acute or subacute cough. For example, antibiotics may be given for pneumonia.

Chronic Cough

A chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks. Common causes of a chronic cough are upper airway cough syndrome (UACS), asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

"UACS" is a term used to describe conditions that inflame the upper airways and cause a cough. Examples include sinus infections and allergies. These conditions can cause mucus (a slimy substance) to run down your throat from the back of your nose. This is called postnasal drip.

If you have a sinus infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. He or she also may suggest you use a medicine that you spray into your nose. If allergies are causing your cough, your doctor may advise you to avoid the substances that you're allergic to (allergens) if possible.

If you have asthma, try to avoid irritants and allergens that make your asthma worse. Take your asthma medicines as your doctor prescribes.

GERD occurs if acid from your stomach backs up into your throat. Your doctor may prescribe a medicine to reduce acid in your stomach. You also may be able to relieve GERD symptoms by waiting 3 to 4 hours after a meal before lying down, and by sleeping with your head raised.

Smoking also can cause a chronic cough. If you smoke, it's important to quit. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Many hospitals have programs that help people quit smoking, or hospital staff can refer you to a program. The Health Topics Smoking and Your Heart article and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart" booklet have more information about how to quit smoking.

Other causes of a chronic cough include respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, lung cancer, and heart failure. Treatments for these causes may include medicines, procedures, and other therapies. Treatment also may include avoiding irritants and allergens and quitting smoking.

If your chronic cough is due to a medicine you're taking, your doctor may prescribe a different medicine.

Treating the Cough Rather Than the Cause

Coughing is important because it helps clear your airways of irritants, such as smoke and mucus (a slimy substance). Coughing also helps prevent infections.

Cough medicines usually are used only when the cause of the cough is unknown and the cough causes a lot of discomfort.

Medicines can help control a cough and make it easier to cough up mucus. Your doctor may recommend medicines such as:

  • Prescription cough suppressants, also called antitussives. These medicines can help relieve a cough. However, they're usually used when nothing else works. No evidence shows that over-the-counter cough suppressants relieve a cough.
  • Expectorants. These medicines may loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up.
  • Bronchodilators. These medicines relax your airways.

Other treatments also may relieve an irritated throat and loosen mucus. Examples include using a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer and drinking enough fluids. Examples of fluids are water, soup, and juice. Ask your doctor how much fluid you need.

Cough in Children

No evidence shows that cough and cold medicines help children recover more quickly from colds. These medicines can even harm children. Talk with your child's doctor about your child's cough and how to treat it.




Living With Cough

If you have a cough, you can take steps to recover from the condition that's causing the cough. You also can take steps to relieve your cough. Ongoing care and lifestyle changes can help you.

Ongoing Care

Follow the treatment plan your doctor gives you for treating the cause of your cough. Take all medicines as your doctor prescribes. If you're using antibiotics, continue to take the medicine until it's all gone. You may start to feel better before you finish the medicine, but you should continue to take it.

Ask your doctor about ways to relieve your cough. He or she may recommend cough medicines. These medicines usually are used only when the cause of a cough is unknown and the cough is causing a lot of discomfort.

A cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer may help relieve an irritated throat and loosen mucus. Getting enough fluids (for example, water, soup, or juice) may have the same effect. Ask your doctor about how much fluid you need.

Your doctor will let you know when to schedule followup care.

Lifestyle Changes

If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. The Health Topics Smoking and Your Heart article and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart" booklet have more information about how to quit smoking.

Try to avoid irritants and allergens that make you cough. Examples of irritants include cigarette smoke, air pollution, paint fumes, and scented products like perfumes or air fresheners. Examples of allergens include dust, animal dander, mold, and pollens from trees, grasses, and flowers.

Follow a healthy diet and be as physically active as you can. A healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, and fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products. A healthy diet also is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar.

For more information about following a healthy diet, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Aim for a Healthy Weight Web site, "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart," and "Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH." All of these resources include general advice about healthy eating.




Clinical Trials

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) is strongly committed to supporting research aimed at preventing and treating heart, lung, and blood diseases and conditions and sleep disorders.

NHLBI-supported research has led to many advances in medical knowledge and care. Often, these advances depend on the willingness of volunteers to take part in clinical trials.

Clinical trials test new ways to prevent, diagnose, or treat various diseases and conditions. For example, new treatments for a disease or condition (such as medicines, medical devices, surgeries, or procedures) are tested in volunteers who have the illness. Testing shows whether a treatment is safe and effective in humans before it is made available for widespread use.

By taking part in a clinical trial, you can gain access to new treatments before they're widely available. You also will have the support of a team of health care providers, who will likely monitor your health closely. Even if you don't directly benefit from the results of a clinical trial, the information gathered can help others and add to scientific knowledge.

If you volunteer for a clinical trial, the research will be explained to you in detail. You'll learn about treatments and tests you may receive, and the benefits and risks they may pose. You'll also be given a chance to ask questions about the research. This process is called informed consent.

If you agree to take part in the trial, you'll be asked to sign an informed consent form. This form is not a contract. You have the right to withdraw from a study at any time, for any reason. Also, you have the right to learn about new risks or findings that emerge during the trial.

For more information about clinical trials related to your disease or condition, talk with your doctor. You also can visit the following Web sites to learn more about clinical research and to search for clinical trials:

For more information about clinical trials for children, visit the NHLBI's Children and Clinical Studies Web page.




Links to Other Information About Cough

Non-NHLBI Resources

Clinical Trials

 
October 01, 2010 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.