While the body can tolerate solids, liquid or air to pass into our food pipe without any adverse effect, the body does not tolerate the same in case of our windpipe. If anything other than air tries to pass into the windpipe, a forceful cough is generated to expel it out.  

Coughing hence, is considered a reflex action to clear the throat and windpipe of mucus and other foreign irritants. While it’s normal for most to cough to clear the throat from time to time, some conditions lead to more frequent coughing.  

Cough that lasts for less than 3 weeks is called an acute cough. Typically, most episodes of cough clear up or improve significantly within two weeks. If a cough lasts between three to eight weeks, it is considered a sub-acute cough. 

A persistent cough that lasts for eight weeks (or more) is called chronic cough. If you have a “barking” cough or if you cough up blood, seeing a cough specialist right away is recommended. If your cough does not improve within a few weeks, it can be an indication of something more serious.

Bacteria and viruses

One of the most common causes of cough is respiratory tract infection such as flu or cold. Respiratory tract infections are often caused by a virus that can last from a few days to a week. Infections that are attributed to the flu may also take a bit longer to clear up and at times can require the use of antiviral medications or antibiotics.

Clearing the throat

When the airways become clogged with foreign particles like dust, smoke, or mucus, coughing is one of the standard ways to clear it. A cough is a reflex reaction if you want to clear the airways and make breathing easier. Typically, this type of coughing is infrequent. However, coughing can increase with added exposure to irritants.

Medicines

Some medications have been known to cause coughing. Generally, however, it is a rare side effect. For instance, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors that’s used to treat heart conditions and high blood pressure might also cause coughing. Typically, as soon as the medication is discontinued, the coughing also stops.

Asthma

In young children, one of the most common causes of coughing is asthma. Generally, asthmatic coughing is easy to identify since it involves wheezing. Cough is chronic in such cases. As they get older, it is possible for children to outgrow their condition in some cases.

Smoking

Cough that is attributed to smoking is always chronic. It also has a very distinct sound. Cough that is caused by smoking is also known as smoker’s cough.

Other Causes

Other conditions that can cause coughing include:

  • Allergic rhinitis with post nasal drip (sensitive nose)
  • Vocal cords damage
  • Bacterial infections (whooping cough and pneumonia)
  • Serious conditions (heart failure and pulmonary embolism)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is yet another condition that can cause chronic coughing. For those with GERD, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. The backflow will then stimulate a trachea reflex, causing the individual to cough.

Most coughs will significantly improve or clear up within two weeks. If you have a cough that has persisted beyond two weeks, you should see your doctor as it can be a symptom of a more serious health problem.

Also, seeing your doctor is recommended if coughing is accompanied by the following:

  • Chest pains
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness

If you have difficulty breathing or if you cough up blood, get immediate medical attention.

Depending on the cause, coughs can be treated in various ways. 

At-home treatments

Cough caused by a virus cannot be treated using antibiotics. However, you can soothe coughing by:

  • Drinking lots of water to stay hydrated
  • Elevating the head when sleeping
  • Gargling with warm salt water to soothe the throat and remove mucus
  • Using cough drops to soothe the throat
  • Adding ginger or honey to hot tea to clear your airways and relieve cough
  • Using decongestant sprays to ease breathing and unblock the nose
  • Lifestyle modifications to avoid coffee, chocolate, citrus fruits, and spicy food in case of GERD being the cause of your cough
  • Keeping a gap of 2 hours between your last meal and going to bed

Medical Care

 

If cough is due to bacteria, oral antibiotics may be prescribed. To fully treat such a  cough, antibiotics are usually taken for a week. Cough suppressants or expectorants may also be prescribed. 

If your doctor can’t find a cause for the cough, additional tests may be ordered, including:

  • Chest X-ray (to assess if the lungs are clear)
  • Skin and blood tests (to check if it’s an allergic response)
  • Mucus or phlegm analysis (to check for signs or bacteria or tuberculosis)
  • Spirometry to assess for asthma
  • Methacholine Challenge Test

While it is rare for a cough to be the sole symptom of a heart problem, your doctor may still request for an echocardiogram to ensure the heart is functioning properly and is not causing the cough.

Complex cases may require additional testing such as:

  • CT scan – A CT scan provides an in-depth view of the chest and airways. It can be very useful when figuring out the cause of a cough.
  • 24 hour Esophageal pH monitoring to look for GERD.

Oftentimes, coughs disappear naturally within a week (or two) after it first occurs. Typically, coughs won’t cause any lasting symptoms or damage. In some instances, severe cough may cause temporary complications such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Fractured ribs
  • Tiredness
  • Pain in and around the tummy 

The complications are not only rare, they also often ease once the cough disappears. However, if the cough is a symptom of an underlying and more serious condition, it is unlikely to disappear on its own. Left untreated, the condition can worsen and might cause other symptoms.

While infrequent coughing is done to clear the airways, there are certain things you can do to prevent cough.

Quit smoking

Smoking is one of the most common contributors to chronic cough. Fortunately, there are several methods available (i.e., gadgets, support networks, advice groups, medications etc.) to help you stop smoking.  

Dietary changes

One study conducted in 2004 revealed that those who ate diets high in fiber, flavonoids, and fruits were likely to experience chronic respiratory issues like cough. If your diet needs adjusting, your doctor may be able to recommend a dietitian you can work with.

Medical conditions

Whenever possible, it is recommended that you avoid anyone with a contagious condition like Tuberculosis. It is also advisable to wash hands frequently and not share personal belongings like pillows, towels, or utensils.

For those who have existing medical conditions (i.e., asthma or GERD) that can increase their chances of developing a cough, consulting their doctor about various management strategies is recommended. As soon as the condition is managed, you will notice that your cough becomes less frequent or disappears completely.

Contact Us