You're probably among most of the population who consider a cough a nuisance and nothing more. However, our cough mechanism is an ancient inherited safety measure, protecting us from inhaling foreign material deep into our lungs . This material includes mucus, smoke, irritants, and toxic vapors.
Coughs may be voluntary, as when someone is clearing their throat or helping a doctor gauge the health of their lungs and respiratory system . Or coughs may be involuntary and more serious, as with chronic smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), colds, flu, allergies, or bronchitis [3,4].
In fact, there are a million reasons why someone might cough. But persistent cough symptoms can be a sign of a serious illness or a disorder of the respiratory system, so let's take a closer look.
Common accompanying symptoms of cough
It's likely to also experience the following with a cough:
Coughs are caused by irritation, inflammation, and other insults to the lining of the airways and the throat. There are a variety of ailments that can cause coughing, from the common cold to lung cancer. Furthermore, a chronic cough can be due to conditions ranging from asthma to post-nasal drip to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In short, there are infectious, inflammatory, or allergy-related coughs, and there are coughs caused by a range of other varying factors.
Infectious cough causes
The following are common causes of cough related to infection.
- Viral infections: Probably the most common cause of a cough is the common cold, but many other infections of the upper airways can lead to a cough. These include bronchitis, sinusitis, and laryngitis. There are also many types of viral pneumonia that cause a cough. You typically need antibiotics to recover.
- Bacterial infections: Bronchitis and pneumonia (which is bronchitis gone deeper into the lungs), sinusitis, and laryngitis are also bacterial infections that can lead to cough. These cannot be resolved without a doctor's care and medication.
- Influenza: Also a viral infection, the flu can lead to a horrendous cough in some cases.
- Tuberculosis: Fortunately, this infection is relatively rare in America, but this is a common infection worldwide and was a common cause of death in earlier centuries .
- Taking blood pressure medications: Some blood pressure medications, especially angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, can cause a chronic cough .
Inflammatory and allergic causes of coughs
The following are the most common causes of cough related to inflammation or allergies.
- Sarcoidosis: This condition is caused by clusters of inflammatory cells that collect in different areas of the body .
- Allergies: Allergies are a very common cause of cough, causing great irritation and inflammation of the airways, and is a reaction to allergens entering the airways.
- Asthma: Asthma typically causes wheezing accompanied by coughs.
- GERD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease can cause cough as acidic fluids rise up into the esophagus from the stomach below.
- Post-nasal drip: Coughing can result from the sinuses dripping into the throat from the body's effort to clear airways.
Other cough causes
The following may also cause a cough.
- Foreign bodies: Choking on food or other foreign objects can lead to a violent acute cough.
- Lung cancer: This is a common cause of a persistent cough in smokers in which blood may also be coughed up.
- Cystic Fibrosis: This genetic disorder of children and young adults leads to recurrent bouts of pneumonia and can cause persistent coughing .
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): This lung disease is caused by increasing breathlessness and typically causes a persistent, dry cough.
9 Possible Cough Conditions
The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced cough. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Acute bronchitis is an inflammatory reaction to an infection in the airways. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, although some cases may be due to a bacterial infection.
Symptoms include an acute-onset cough with or without sputum production, low-grade fever, shortness of breat...
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.
The common cold is, of course, very common...
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and/or dust particles, most often cigarette smoke.
Symptoms may take years to develop. They include a chronic cough with mucus (sputum), wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, constant colds, swollen ankles, and cyanosis (blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails.) Depression is often a factor due to reduced quality of life.
Treatment is important because there is a greater risk of heart disease and lung cancer in COPD patients. Though the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce risks and allow good quality of life.
COPD is commonly misdiagnosed and so careful testing is done. Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; lung function tests; blood tests; and chest x-ray or CT scan.
Treatment involves quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to other lung irritants; use of inhalers to ease symptoms; steroids; lung therapies; and getting influenza and pneumonia vaccines as recommended.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): cough and dyspnea related to smoking
Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): rectal bleeding
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by one of several different bacteria, often Streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumonia is often contracted in hospitals or nursing homes.
Symptoms include fatigue, fever, chills, painful and difficult breathing, and cough that brings up mucus. Elderly patients may have low body temperature and confusion.
Pneumonia can be a medical emergency for very young children or those over age 65, as well as anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic heart or lung condition. Emergency room is only needed for severe cases or for those with immune deficiency.
Diagnosis is made through blood tests and chest x-ray.
With bacterial pneumonia, the treatment is antibiotics. Be sure to finish all the medication, even if you start to feel better. Hospitalization may be necessary for higher-risk cases.
Some types of bacterial pneumonia can be prevented through vaccination. Flu shots help, too, by preventing another illness from taking hold. Keep the immune system healthy through good diet and sleep habits, not smoking, and frequent handwashing.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath
Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia: cough
Urgency: In-person visit
Viral pneumonia, also called "viral walking pneumonia," is an infection of the lung tissue with influenza ("flu") or other viruses.
These viruses spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Those with weakened immune systems are most susceptible, such as young children, the elderly, and anyone receiving chemotherapy or organ transplant medications.
Symptoms may be mild at first. Most common are cough showing mucus or blood; high fever with shaking chills; shortness of breath; headache; fatigue; and sharp chest pain on deep breathing or coughing.
Medical care is needed right away. If not treated, viral pneumonia can lead to respiratory and organ failure.
Diagnosis is made through chest x-ray. A blood draw or nasal swab may be done for further testing.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses and will not help viral pneumonia. Treatment involves antiviral drugs, corticosteroids, oxygen, pain/fever reducers such as ibuprofen, and fluids. IV (intravenous) fluids may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Prevention consists of flu shots as well as frequent and thorough handwashing.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite
Urgency: Primary care doctor
By definition, chronic bronchitis describes a productive cough lasting more than three months at a time and occurring at least two years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is the less deadly but more bothersome side of the broader condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (...
Post-infectious cough is a cough that begins with a cold or other upper respiratory infection, but does not clear up when the infection does. Instead, it lingers for three weeks or more and becomes chronic.
Most susceptible are smokers, because the irritation from the smoke provokes the cough. Other common causes are post-nasal drip, asthma, and some high blood pressure medications.
Symptoms include an irritating sensation in the throat that may provoke severe bouts of coughing. Some coughing is normal and is part of the body's mechanism to clear the air passages and expel any foreign material, but such a cough should only be brief and intermittent.
A post-infectious cough can interfere with quality of life. A medical provider should be seen for help with the condition, both to ease the symptoms and to rule out a more serious cause for the coughing.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and chest x-ray, with the goal of ruling out different conditions one by one until the actual cause is found and can be treated.
Top Symptoms: cough, congestion, clear runny nose, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, hoarse voice
Symptoms that always occur with post-infectious cough: cough
Symptoms that never occur with post-infectious cough: fever
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Influenza, or "flu," is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. It is spread through the air by coughing, sneezing, or even talking.
Anyone can get the flu, but those who are very young, over 65, and/or have pre-existing medical conditions are most at risk for complications.
Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, and extreme fatigue. The symptoms may appear very suddenly.
Flu can bring on secondary bacterial infections in the lungs or ears. Dehydration is a great concern because the patient rarely wants to eat or drink.
Diagnosis is usually made by symptoms. There are tests that use a swab taken from the nose or throat, but they are not always accurate or necessary.
Treatment consists mainly of good supportive care, which means providing the patient with rest, fluids, and pain-relieving medication such as ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to children.
Antibiotics cannot help with the flu, since antibiotics only work against bacteria. There are anti-viral medications that a doctor may prescribe.
The best prevention is an annual flu shot.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, cough, muscle aches
Symptoms that never occur with influenza: headache resulting from a head injury
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Viral throat infection
A viral throat infection is an infection of the throat, or pharynx, that is caused by viruses. Viruses are different from bacteria such as Streptococcus pyogenes (which causes "strep throat"). Viral infections are the most common cause of sore throats in children and adu...
Cough Treatments and Relief
While a cough isn't always a serious condition, it is important to seek care if it worsens or persists. You and your physician can ultimately determine the best treatment plan for a persistent or severe cough depending on the cause.
There are all kinds of good home remedies and home treatments for cough symptoms that you can try, such as the following.
- Elevate the head and neck to help prop open airways
- Steam inhalation over a steam bath: Steam helps open the airways and can bring relief.
- Humidifiers: Humidifiers prevent the airways from drying out and can help soothe a cough.
- Hydrate: Fluids help moisturize the airways and can soothe a cough. Staying hydrated can also keep mucus thinner and easier to clear.
- Try hot tea with lemon or honey
- Cough syrups and drops: These can be purchased over-the-counter and bring many people great relief.
- Avoid exposure to allergens and irritants: Close your windows when there is a high content of allergens in your area/environment.
- Antibiotics: In the event you have a viral or bacterial infection, which your doctor can diagnose, a short course of antibiotics or other medications is often needed.
When to see a doctor
Any cough that last more than a week or two, especially if you have blood in any mucus being expelled with the cough, should be evaluated by a doctor. A chronic cough can often be managed by your doctor, and you may be given antibiotics to clear the bacterial or viral.
When it is an emergency
If you are experiencing a fever, nausea and vomiting, are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain, or are coughing up significant amounts of blood, you should seek emergency care.
If someone is choking you need to act fast:
- Call 911 first and immediately
- Perform the Heimlich maneuver: Press your thumb firmly into the area under the ribs and up, hard.
- If necessary, perform CPR: Keep the victim alive until the medics get there.
FAQs About Cough
Here are some frequently asked questions about cough.
What causes persistent cough?
Cough can be classified by duration. An acute cough lasts less than three weeks; subacute lasts three to eight weeks; and chronic goes on for more than eight weeks. A persistent cough — one that does not go away — is either subacute or chronic. It may be due to post-nasal drip; acid reflux (also known as GERD); asthma; side effects of certain drugs, especially ACE inhibitors; infections; an aspirated foreign body; a tumor; or a variety of lung disorders.
Why do we cough?
Coughing can be both voluntary and involuntary. Involuntary coughing is a automatic protective reflex intended to clear the large airways. It is set off when receptors in the respiratory tract and, occasionally, other surrounding organs are irritated. The irritant can be an allergy, a foreign body, an infection, a chemical such as acid reflux, or even a change in temperature such as sudden exposure to cold air.
Is excessive coughing dangerous?
Excessive coughing may cause throat irritation, vomiting, and pain in the chest or rib muscles from strain. Less frequently it can cause exhaustion, dizziness, and incontinence. Rib fractures may occur, especially in women with decreased bone density (osteoporosis). If the excessive coughing brings up any blood, immediate medical attention is needed.
What causes a chronic cough?
Please refer to the answer to the first question.
What is a dry cough a symptom of?
A dry cough is also called a nonproductive cough. This means that little or no mucus or phlegm is brought up when the person coughs. Causes of dry cough include viral infections such as influenza; allergies; irritants such as tobacco smoke; other air pollutants; acid reflux (GERD); asthma; and other lung disorders.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Cough
To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Does your cough produce phlegm?
- Do you have a sore throat?
The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.
If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions
Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cough
Cough Symptom Checker Statistics
People who have experienced cough have also experienced:
- 7% Congestion
- 7% Sore Throat
- 5% Fatigue
People who have experienced cough were most often matched with:
- 60% Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)
- 20% Bronchitis
- 20% Common Cold
People who have experienced cough had symptoms persist for:
- 32% Less than a week
- 23% Two weeks to a month
- 18% Over a month
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).
Cough Symptom Checker
Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cough
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- Lasserson D, Mills K, Arunachalam R, Polkey M, Moxham J, Kalra L. Differences in motor activation of voluntary and reflex cough in humans. Thorax. 2006;61(8):699-705. NCBI Link
- Bishop S. Cough That Lasts May Be Sign of Underlying Problem. Mayo Clinic News Network. Published April 6, 2012. Mayo Clinic Link
- Cough Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors. American Lung Association. Updated March 13, 2018. American Lung Association Link
- Tuberculosis. National Institutes of Health: Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT). RePORT Link
- Dicpinigaitis PV. Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor-induced cough: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129(1 Suppl):169S-173S. PubMed Link
- Pulmonary Sarcoidosis. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
- Overview: Cystic Fibrosis. National Health Service. Reviewed Feb. 13, 2018. NHS Link
Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.