Symptoms A-Z

Coughing Fits Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your coughing fits symptoms, including 10 causes & common questions.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 10 Possible Coughing Fits Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. References

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. [4]

Symptoms that can be associated coughing fits include:

Coughing Fits Causes

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. [1]
  • 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. [2]

Infectious causes

The respiratory tract is extremely susceptible to infection due to its direct contact with the environment. [3]

  • 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. [4]
  • 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. [5] Pertussis is a bacterial infection that leads to persistent coughing fits and sometimes vomiting. [6]

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. [3]

  • 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. [4]
  • 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. [7]

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. [4]
  • 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. [8]

10 Possible Coughing Fits Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced coughing fits. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Bronchitis

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,(https://www.buoyhealth.com/symptoms-a-z/shortness-of-breath/), and noisy breathing.

The diagnosis is made clinically, although testing may be ordered to rule out other conditions.

Treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms and may include over-the-counter painkillers, cough suppressants, and expectorants. Although antibiotics are often prescribed, antibiotics have been shown to provide no benefit in most cases of acute bronchitis and are associated with an increased risk of side effects.

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

Chronic bronchitis

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 (COPD). Collectively, COPD is the fourth most common cause of death in the U.S.

Treatment begins with pulmonary rehabilitation and inhaled medications to open up the obstructed airways, then often progresses to oxygen therapy or occasionally lung transplant. Unfortunately, available treatments cannot cure or reverse COPD; the only effective way to slow its progression is to quit smoking.

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

Common cold

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. Americans catch over one billion colds per year, with adults averaging two to three per year, and children averaging as many as eight colds per year.

The common cold usually lasts about a week, and is self-limited (meaning it goes away on its own). Although there is no treatment for the common cold, there are many strategies for prevention and improvement of symptoms.

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

Benign cough

Benign cough means a cough that is not caused by any harmful condition or serious illness.

Postnasal drip, where mucous from the nose drains into the throat, can trigger a benign cough. So can asthma, exposure to dust or other irritants, acid reflux (heartburn or GERD,) some medications, and breathing very cold air. Postnasal drip itself can be caused by allergy, some medications, and deviated septum.

An occasional cough that brings up a slight amount of clear mucus is normal and helps clear the throat and lungs. The presence of blood or thick mucus is not normal and the person should see a medical provider.

If an unexplained cough persists for more than one month, it is important to identify the cause so that serious illness can be ruled out.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination, and sometimes through mucus testing, imaging, lung function tests, and bronchoscopy.

Treatment involves addressing any underlying causes, such as allergies. In some cases a cough suppressant may be prescribed.

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

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.

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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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.

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

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.

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

Post-infectious cough

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.

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

Whooping cough

Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, which affects the respiratory systems of children, adolescents, and adults. Whooping cough has also been called the "100-day cough" because of its extended time course. The symptoms classically associated with whooping cough are a sudden, uncontrollable coughing spell ("paroxysmal cough"), a "whooping" sound on inspiration, and throwing up after a coughing fit. The course of the condition is generally divided up into three phases catarrhal, paroxysmal, and convalescent phases. The symptoms of the condition generally change over the course of these phases. Whooping cough is highly contagious and generally spread through respiratory droplets. The DTaP or Tdap vaccines are used to prevent the spread of whooping cough.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: cough with dry or watery sputum, productive cough, fever, wheezing, coughing fits

Urgency: Primary care doctor

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.

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. [12]
  • Coughing up large amounts of bloody sputum. [5]
  • High fever and chills. [6,11]

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. [6]
  • You have had weight loss and/or night sweats. [2,11]
  • You have an existing respiratory condition and your coughing fits have worsened. Your doctor may adjust or add a medication. [6]

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, inhaled medications or less commonly, oxygen therapy depending on the cause, severity, and duration of your coughing fits symptoms. [3,6]

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. [11]
  • 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. [13]
  • Honey: A teaspoon of honey can help loosen a cough and alleviate exacerbation, but do not give to children younger than 1 year old. [1]
  • Smoking Cessation: Smoking is a major irritant and destroyer of the lower respiratory tract; many causes of coughing fits will improve after smoking cessation. [10]

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. [14]

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. [15]

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). [16,17,18]

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. [18]

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. [15,18]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Coughing Fits

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 currently smoke?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

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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 were most often matched with:

  • 60% Chronic Bronchitis
  • 20% Bronchitis
  • 20% Common Cold

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

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Coughing Fits Symptom Checker

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References

  1. 8 Different Coughs, Their Symptoms and What Each Means for Your Health. Health Freedom Alliance. Health Freedom Alliance Link.
  2. Davidson R. Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis: Patient Information Guide. Canadian Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. Published February 2012. CPFF Link.
  3. Evarts H. Columbia Engineering Team Develops Targeted Drug Delivery to Lung. Columbia University in the City of New York: Biomedical Engineering. Published September 2, 2015. BME Link.
  4. Schmitt B. Cough. HealthyChildren.org. HealthyChildren.org.
  5. Parsons J. What Does the Color of Phlegm Mean? The Ohio State University: Wexner Medical Center. Published December 22, 2017. Wexner Medical Center Link.
  6. What is Pertussis (Whooping Cough)? American Thoracic Society. Published 2015. American Thoracic Society Link.
  7. Chronic Cough & Chronic Throat Clearing. UK HealthCare. UK HealthCare Link.
  8. Motor Neurone Disease (MND). HealthTalkOnline. Updated August 2017. HealthTalkOnline Link.
  9. What is Pertussis (Whooping Cough)? American Thoracic Society. Published 2015. American Thoracic Society Link.
  10. Lung Conditions - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Better Health Channel. Better Health Channel Link.
  11. Viral Variation: How to Tell a Cold from the Flu. Providence Health & Services. Providence Health & Services Link.
  12. Is it a Bacterial Infection or Virus? DukeHealth. Published October 1, 2013. DukeHealth Link.
  13. Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin, and Pseudoephedrine. University of Michigan Health System. UofMHealth Link.
  14. Mukerji V. Dyspnea, Orthopnea, and Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, eds. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Butterworths; 1990. NCBI Link.
  15. Sore Throat. Rutgers-Camden Student Health Services. Rutgers-Camden Student Health Link.
  16. Vertigan AE. Somatic Cough Syndrome or Psychogenic Cough - What is the Difference? Journal of Thoracic Disease. 2017;9(3):831-838. NCBI Link.
  17. Vorvick LJ. Hyperventilation. Ridgeview Medical Center. Updated July 13, 2016. Ridgeview Medical Center Link.
  18. Chronic Cough. The Asthma Center. The Asthma Center Link.