A cough is a reflex reaction designed to keep your airways clear. You may be coughing because of another condition, like asthma or a respiratory infection, or because you have swallowing difficulties. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out what’s going on.
What is a cough?
A cough is a natural reflex that is your body’s way of removing irritants from your upper (throat) and lower (lungs) airways. A cough helps your body heal and protect itself.
What are the types of cough?
There are many types of cough. Some of the names for coughs describe how long they last, while other types describe how they feel or sound, and other types are actual conditions.
Types of coughs may be related to how they last
- Acute cough begins suddenly and lasts for two to three weeks.
- Subacute cough is one that stays around after you’ve had an infection and lasts three to eight weeks.
- Chronic cough lasts longer than eight weeks. Long-lasting coughs may also be called persistent coughs.
- Refractory cough is a chronic cough that hasn’t responded to treatment.
Types of coughs may be related to mucus
- A productive cough, or a wet cough, is a cough that brings up mucus or phlegm.
- A non-productive cough, or a dry cough, doesn’t bring up mucus or phlegm.
Types of coughs that have distinct sounds and are related to specific conditions
- Whooping. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an infection that causes a cough that sounds like a “whoop.”
- Barking. A cough that sounds like barking can be a sign of croup.
- Wheezing. This type of cough often happens when you have blocked airways. It can be associated with an infection, like a cold, or chronic conditions, like asthma.
Types of coughs related to when you cough
- Daytime cough.
- Nighttime (nocturnal) cough.
- Cough with vomiting. This often happens with children. They cough so hard that they gag and sometimes vomit.
Who is more likely to experience a cough?
Anyone can get a cough. A cough is the most common symptom reported in healthcare providers' offices.
However, some people are more likely to get coughs than others. These include those who:
- Smoke substances (like tobacco or marijuana).
- Have chronic illnesses, especially those involving the lungs or nervous system.
- Have allergies.
- Are children. Kids get sick often, especially if they’re in daycare or school.
What are the most common causes of a cough?
There are many things that can make you cough. Some of them include:
Irritants or allergens
- Strong smells (like cleaners and perfumes).
- Pet dander.
- Certain medications, like the blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors.
Medical conditions that can cause acute and subacute cough
- Acute bronchitis or bronchiolitis.
- Whooping cough (also called pertussis).
- Acute second- or third-hand smoke exposure.
Medical conditions that can cause chronic cough
- Chronic bronchitis.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung conditions.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Throat disorders, including vocal cord disorders.
- Postnasal drip.
- Heart failure and other cardiac conditions.
Care and Treatment
What can be done to control or relieve a cough?
Treating a cough will depend on what is causing the cough. If you have an infection, your healthcare provider might prescribe some type of antibiotic or antiviral medication, but most viral coughs do not require antiviral medications. For GERD, they might suggest diet changes or prescribe a proton pump inhibitor or an H2 blocker.
Water can be good for a cough. Drinking it can help ease a cough from throat irritation or dryness. Adding it to the air with a vaporizer or a steamy shower are other ways water relieves a cough.
Quitting smoking and avoiding other irritants are also ways to relieve a cough. Those irritants may include medicines, scents (like perfume or candles), smoke or allergens.
What over-the-counter treatments can I use for cough?
There are plenty of cough syrups and cough medications available over-the-counter for adults. In general, they have not been shown to work better than a spoon full of honey. Cough drops and butterscotch hard candies can help soothe your sore throat. You may also get relief from hot beverages like tea, especially if you put honey in them.
You shouldn’t give cough medicines to your child if they’re under 6 years of age without the approval of their healthcare provider.
How can cough be prevented?
You can prevent some kinds of cough by avoiding irritants that you know cause you to cough.
You can help prevent coughs caused by infections by:
- Getting vaccinated for influenza, COVID-19 and pneumonia.
- Avoiding people who are ill.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water and/or using hand sanitizers.