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.

3 Potential Coughing Fits Causes

  1. 1.Asthma Attack

    An asthma attack is the sudden worsening of asthma caused by a trigger (e.g., exercise or cold air) or infection.

    Within minutes of treatment.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, shortness of breath at rest, tight, heavy, squeezing chest pain, wheezing, cough with dry or watery sputum
    Symptoms that always occur with asthma attack:
    shortness of breath
    Symptoms that never occur with asthma attack:
    blue skin
    Urgency:
    In-person visit

    Coughing Fits Checker

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  2. 2.Adult - Onset Asthma

    Asthma in adults is an under-diagnosed reason for a chronic cough. In general, asthma is caused by hyperactive inflammation of the lung's airways. This results in episodic dyspnea, coughing and wheezing which is triggered by for example exercise, cold air, pollen or dust.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, wheezing, dry cough, shortness of breath at rest, shortness of breath on exertion
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.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

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.Do you currently smoke?
  • Q.Does your cough produce phlegm?

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:

    • 6% Cough
    • 5% Mucous Dripping in the Back of the Throat
    • 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
    • 17% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced coughing fits were most often matched with:

    • 1% Adult - Onset Asthma
    • 1% Asthma Attack
    • 1% Whooping Cough
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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.

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