Read below about coughing fits, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your coughing fits from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Coughing Fits Symptoms

Coughing is a reflex triggered when the body senses the presence of an irritating substance in the airways or lungs. Depending on the context, two or three coughs is a normal response, but a coughing fit signifies a more serious underlying problem.

Symptoms that can be associated coughing fits include:

Coughing Fits Causes Overview

The upper respiratory system is composed of the nose, mouth, and throat. It connects to the lower respiratory system that includes the trachea, lungs, and segments (bronchial tree) that bring oxygen to these areas.

Coughing fits can be caused by any irritant that enters through the upper respiratory tract and aggravates the lungs and bronchial tree.

Chronic respiratory disease

Underlying diseases of the respiratory system can cause permanent structural changes that can contribute to coughing fits, especially in exacerbating situations like weather or underlying illness.

  • Obstructive: Diseases such as asthma and bronchitis result in recurring inflammation of the airways that lead to difficulty in clearing mucus and other irritants from the respiratory tract. The constant buildup of mucus triggers the body into a series of coughing fits.
  • Restrictive: Many diseases can result in stiffness of the lungs that limits the body's ability to fully expand and breathe in oxygen. This restriction in movement can lead to coughing fits because the body is not receiving enough oxygen.

Infectious causes

The respiratory tract is extremely susceptible to infection due to its direct contact with the environment.

  • Viral: Viral infections can produce mucus in the airways that drips down the back of the throat triggering coughing fits. The common cold and flu are examples of a viral infections that can be associated with coughing fits.
  • Bacterial : Bacterial infections can cause more severe upper and lower respiratory issues than viral infections. Bacterial infections are often associated with high fever, chills, difficulty breathing, and coughing up blood. Pertussis is a bacterial infection that leads to persistent coughing fits and sometimes vomiting.

Environmental causes

Just as bacteria can easily enter the upper respiratory tract, other substances from the environment (either intentionally or unintentionally) can enter the body and cause coughing fits.

  • Allergy: Seasonal allergies that cause runny nose and itchy eyes can also result in coughing fits. Allergies can also irritate and exacerbate the respiratory tract triggering the body to cough.
  • Medication: Certain medications called Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure can cause coughing fits for some people.

Mechanical causes

  • Obstructive: The presence of a structure blocking the airways can cause a coughing fit because your body is attempting to clear out the offending source. Choking on foreign bodies are often the culprit for this type of cause, especially in children.
  • Functional: Diseases that weaken the coordination of the respiratory tract and muscles used for swallowing can make it difficult for your body to clear irritating substances, often leading to painful coughing fits.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Coughing Fits

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced coughing fits. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Bronchitis

    Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus, as well as shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness. It is typically caused by a virus.

    Symptoms resolve within 1-2 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    cough, productive cough, sore throat, wheezing, coughing up green or yellow phlegm
    Symptoms that always occur with bronchitis:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with bronchitis:
    nausea or vomiting
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.Chronic Bronchitis

    Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus, as well as shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.

    Likely a lifelong condition

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough, productive cough, wheezing, congestion
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic bronchitis:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic bronchitis:
    nausea or vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Common Cold

    The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

    The common cold resolves within 7 to 10 days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sore throat, congestion
    Symptoms that never occur with common cold:
    being severely ill, severe muscle aches, rash, severe headache, sinus pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  4. 4.Benign Cough

    Coughing is a reflex used to keep the throat and airways clear and healthy. When it occurs without fever or other signs of infection, it is considered benign.

    Days to years

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    cough, cough with dry or watery sputum, severe cough
    Symptoms that always occur with benign cough:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with benign cough:
    fever, severe cough, being severely ill, coughing up blood
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  5. 5.Acid Reflux Disease (Gerd)

    Acid reflux disease, also known as GERD, occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach come back up into the esophagus. The most common symptoms are heartburn and regurgitation.

    With proper treatment, symptoms may be relieved within days & at most several weeks.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, sore throat, pain below the ribs, cough with dry or watery sputum, deep chest pain, behind the breast bone
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  6. 6.Smoking - Induced Cough

    The airways are lined with tiny cells called cilia, whose function is to catch toxins in air that is inhaled and push them up towards the mouth. When smoke is inhaled, the cilia are paralyzed for a short while, so toxins are allowed to enter the lungs and create inflammation. During the night, the cilia repair themselves and begin to push up all the accumulated mucus and toxins, causing an increase in cough in the morning.

    Coughing will diminish within 3 months of quitting smoking.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    cough
    Symptoms that always occur with smoking-induced cough:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with smoking-induced cough:
    fever
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  7. 7.Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)

    COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a chronic condition of the lungs and the airways in the lungs. Damage has occured due to long-term exposure to substances that irritate and damage the lungs, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. This damage can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance and cough. A common cold or other types of infection can cause symptoms to worden acutely, this is called an exacerbation.

    Often a lifelong condition

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
  8. 8.Post - Infectious Cough

    Post-infectious upper airway cough is a condition that can develop as a direct result of a previous infection of the airways. In adults, this is the most common cause of chronic (persistent) cough.

    2 weeks with treatment.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    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
  9. 9.Whooping Cough

    Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease that causes uncontrollable coughing. The name comes from the noise people make when they take a breath after a cough. It causes 12-33% of all chronic coughs in adults and adolescents, even if they're vaccinated.

    Symptoms of cough can last up to 6 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    cough with dry or watery sputum, productive cough, fever, wheezing, coughing fits
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  10. 10.Ace Inhibitor Induced Cough

    ACE Inhibitors are drugs used to prevent, treat or improve symptoms in conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart failure and diabetes. In rare cases, these drugs can cause serious side effects that can be life-threatening. In other cases, it can cause a cough that can affect your quality-of-life.

    Some symptoms like dry cough are persistent and may not subside without medication change

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    cough with dry or watery sputum
    Symptoms that always occur with ace inhibitor induced cough:
    cough with dry or watery sputum
    Symptoms that never occur with ace inhibitor induced cough:
    fever
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Coughing Fits Treatments and Relief

Seek emergency treatment if along with your coughing fits symptoms you experience:

  • Severe difficulty breathing.
  • Coughing up large amounts of bloody sputum.
  • High fever and chills.

Though most cases of coughing fits do not require emergency treatment, prompt medical attention is necessary as most causes will not resolve on their own.

See your doctor especially if:

  • Your coughing fits have lasted for more than a week.
  • You have had weight loss and/or night sweats.
  • You have an existing respiratory condition and your coughing fits have worsened. Your doctor may adjust or add a medication.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, inhaled medications — or less commonly, oxygen therapy — depending on the cause, severity, and duration of your coughing fits symptoms.

Some home treatments that may help with your coughing fits include:

  • Drinking lots of water : Staying hydrated will also help keep your mucus thin, making it easier to clear.
  • Over-the-counter medications : There are medications you can buy that can help clear up mucus (expectorants) and suppress the cough reflex (antitussives). These are particularly helpful for giving relief at night.
  • Honey: A teaspoon of honey can help loosen a cough and alleviate exacerbation, but do not give to children younger than 1 year old.
  • Smoking Cessation : Smoking is a major irritant and destroyer of the lower respiratory tract; many causes of coughing fits will improve after smoking cessation.

FAQs About Coughing Fits

Here are some frequently asked questions about coughing fits.

Why do I have uncontrollable coughing at night?

Uncontrollable coughing fits at night are often caused by backup of fluid from the heart into the lungs. This is called paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. When a heart cannot pump sufficient blood, the fluid accumulates in the lungs and causes difficulty breathing and increased coughing.

Do hot showers help coughs?

Yes, hot showers can help coughs if a cough is triggered by asthma or cough-variant asthma. The hot steam can help the throat relax and increase ease of breathing. Coughs can also be caused by inflammation of the throat and pharynx, and hot steam can help reduce inflammation and moisten mucous membranes and loosen phlegm from within the throat.

Can anxiety cause coughing fits?

Anxiety does not cause coughing fits unless they are psychological in origin. Anxiety can, at times, cause hyperventilation and shortness of breath, but neither of those symptoms can cause coughing fits. Coughing fits are more commonly caused by cough variant asthma, post-nasal drip, or even gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Why do my coughing fits lead to vomiting?

Coughing fits, especially if they are extreme or if an individual has a full stomach, can lead to vomiting. Common causes of these types of extreme coughing fits include cough variant asthma, lung disease such as COPD, acid reflux (GERD), and post-nasal drip.

Why can't I catch my breath after a coughing fit?

A coughing fit may make it more difficult to catch your breath if it is accompanied by narrowing of the airways that allow breathing in. Asthma and emphysema (COPD) may cause an inability to catch one's breath following a lengthy series of coughing fits. Steam or an inhaler may be treatments for a coughing fit.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Coughing Fits

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Does your cough produce phlegm?
  • Q.Do you currently smoke?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our coughing fits symptom checker to find out more.

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Coughing Fits Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced coughing fits have also experienced:

    • 5% Mucous Dripping in the Back of the Throat
    • 5% Cough
    • 5% Coughing Up Green or Yellow Phlegm
  • People who have experienced coughing fits had symptoms persist for:

    • 32% Less Than a Week
    • 23% Two Weeks to a Month
    • 18% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced coughing fits were most often matched with:

    • 60% Chronic Bronchitis
    • 20% Bronchitis
    • 20% Common Cold
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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