WHAT IS COUGHING?
Coughing is a frequent reflex action that clears your throat of mucus or foreign irritants. While everyone coughs to clear their throat from time to time, a number of conditions could cause more frequent coughing.
A cough that lasts for lesser than 3 weeks is an acute cough. Most episodes of coughing will clear up or at least significantly improve within 2 weeks.
If your cough lasts between 3 and 8 weeks, improving by the end of that period, it is considered a subacute cough. A continuous cough that lasts more than eight weeks is a chronic cough.
You should consult a doctor if you cough up blood or have a “barking” cough. You should also contact them if your cough has not improved within a few weeks, as this could indicate something more severe.
WHAT CAUSES A COUGH?
A cough could be caused by several conditions, both temporary and permanent
Clearing the Throat
Coughing is a normal way of clearing your throat. When your airways become clogged with mucus or foreign particles like smoke or dust, a cough is a reflex reaction that attempts to clear the particles and make breathing easier.
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively infrequent, but coughing will increase with exposure to irritants like smoke.
Viruses and Bacteria
The most common cause of a cough is a respiratory tract infection, like a cold or flu.
Respiratory tract infections are generally caused by a virus and may last from a few days to a week. Infections caused by the flu might take a little longer to clear up and can sometimes require antibiotics.
Smoking is a frequent cause of coughing. A cough caused by smoking is nearly always a chronic cough with a distinctive sound. It is often known as a smoker’s cough.
A frequent cause of coughing in young children is asthma. Typically, asthmatic coughing includes wheezing, making it easy to identify.
Asthma exacerbations must receive treatment using an inhaler. It is possible for children to grow out of asthma as they grow older.
Some medications will cause coughing, although this is usually a rare side effect. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, could cause coughing.
Two of the more common ones include :
- Zestril (lisinopril)
- Vasotec (enalapril)
The coughing stops if the medication is discontinued
Other conditions that might cause a cough include :
- Damage to the vocal cords
- Postnasal drip
- Bacterial infections like pneumonia, whooping cough, or croup
- Severe conditions like pulmonary embolism and heart failure
Another common condition that could cause a chronic cough is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In this state, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in the trachea, leading the person to cough.
WHEN IS COUGHING AN EMERGENCY?
Most coughs will clear up, or at least significantly improve, in less than two weeks. If you have a cough that has not improved in this amount of time, see a doctor, as it may be a symptom of a more severe problem.
If additional symptoms develop, call your doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms to watch out for are :
- Chest pains
Coughing up blood or having difficulty breathing needs immediate emergency medical attention.
HOW IS A COUGH TREATED?
Coughs could be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. For healthy adults, most treatments will include self-care.
A cough that results from a virus cannot be treated with antibiotics. You could, however, soothe it in the following ways :
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- Elevate your head with additional pillows when sleeping.
- Use cough drops to soothe your throat.
- Gargle with warm salt water daily to remove mucus and soothe your throat.
- Avoid irritants, including smoke and dust.
- Add honey or ginger to hot tea to ease your cough and clear your airway.
- Use decongestant sprays to unblock your nose and relieve breathing.
Find out more cough remedies here.
Generally, medical care will involve your doctor looking down your throat, listening to your cough, and asking about any other symptoms.
If your cough is likely because of bacteria, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics. You will usually need to take the medication for a week to completely cure the cough. They might also prescribe either expectorant cough syrups or cough suppressants that contain codeine.
If your doctor cannot find a cause for your cough, they may order additional tests. This can include :
- A chest X-ray to evaluate whether your lungs are clear
- Blood and skin tests in case they suspect an allergic response
- Phlegm or mucus testing for signs of bacteria or tuberculosis
It is very rare for a cough to be the only symptom of heart problems, but a doctor may request an echocardiogram to make sure that your heart is functioning correctly and is not causing the cough.
Difficult cases might require additional testing :
- CT scan –A CT scan provides a more in-depth view of the airways and chest. It could be useful when determining the cause of a cough.
- Esophageal pH monitoring – If the CT scan does not show the cause, your doctor might refer you to a gastrointestinal specialist or a pulmonary (lung) specialist. One of the tests these specialists might use is esophageal pH monitoring, which looks for evidence of GERD.
In cases where the previous treatments are either not possible or extremely unlikely to be successful, or the cough is expected to resolve without intervention, doctors might prescribe cough suppressants.
WHAT IS THE OUTCOME IF LEFT UNTREATED?
In most cases, a cough will go away naturally within a week or two after it first develops. Coughing would not typically cause any long-lasting damage or symptoms.
In some cases, a severe cough might cause temporary complications such as :
- Fractured ribs
These are very rare, and they will normally cease when the cough disappears.
A cough that is the symptom of a more severe condition is unlikely to go away on its own. If left untreated, the condition could get worse and cause other symptoms.
WHAT PREVENTIVE MEASURES COULD BE TAKEN TO AVOID A COUGH?
While infrequent coughing is necessary to clear the airways, there are ways you could prevent other coughs.
Smoking is a frequent contributor to a chronic cough. It could be very difficult to cure a smoker’s cough.
There are a wide variety of methods available to help you quit smoking, from gadgets to advice groups and support networks. After you quit smoking, you will be much less likely to catch colds or experience a chronic cough.
An older study in 2004 found that people who ate diets high in fruit, fiber, and flavonoids were less likely to experience chronic respiratory symptoms like a cough
If you need help adjusting your diet, your doctor might be able to advise you or refer you to a dietitian.
If you can, you should avoid anyone with a contagious illness, like bronchitis, to avoid coming into contact with germs.
Wash your hands frequently and do not share utensils, towels, or pillows.
If you have existing medical conditions that increase your chances of developing a cough, like GERD or asthma, consult your doctor about different management strategies. Once the condition is managed, you might find that your cough disappears, or becomes much less frequent.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from coughing, our expert providers at Specialty Care Clinics will take care of your health and help you recover.