A cough is,?ahem, your body's way of responding when something irritates your throat or airways. (1) Coughing, from throat-clearing to a wheezing cough to full-on hacking, can be voluntary or involuntary, short-term or long-lasting.
Coughing is the sudden expulsion of air from the lungs through the epiglottis, the little trapdoor that covers the entrance to your windpipe. (2) The incredible speed at which a cough occurs (estimated at 100 miles per hour) creates a strong force of air that helps clear your breathing passageways of unwanted irritants.
A cough is relatively painless, but it can be irritating or distracting to others, and the effort of coughing can leave you feeling achy and fatigued. An occasional cough is normal and nothing to worry about, but a cough that lasts for several weeks or more or one that produces discolored or bloody mucus may be a sign of a medical condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. (1)
Signs and Symptoms of a Cough
Coughs can be either acute or chronic. Acute coughs begin suddenly and usually last for less than three weeks, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (3) This type of cough is the one you most often get with a cold, flu, or acute bronchitis. (4)
Chronic coughs last longer than eight weeks (or longer than four weeks in children). (1) A chronic cough can wake you up at night when you’re sleeping and lead to fatigue. (5) It can also occur with other signs and symptoms, including:
Causes and Risk Factors of a Cough
Acute coughs and chronic coughs have different causes. Common causes of acute cough include: (1)
- Common cold and influenza (flu)
- Inhaling an irritant (such as dust, chemicals, or a foreign body)
- Whooping cough
- Acute bronchitis (3)
- Sinus infection
Common causes of chronic cough include: (1)
How Are Coughs Diagnosed?
To diagnose the cause of your cough, your doctor or healthcare provider will take a medical history, give you a physical exam, and may order some tests, such as a chest X-ray or lung function test. (3) They will also check your vital signs, like your temperature and the number of breaths you take per minute. Your doctor may ask you questions to figure out what type of cough you have and what is causing it, such as:
- If you use or previously used tobacco
- What kind of occupation you have or had
- How long you have been coughing
- How well you breathe when you are resting and when you are working hard
- If the cough is interrupting your sleep
- If anything comes up when you cough (like phlegm or blood)
- If you are taking any medications
- If you have a bad taste in your mouth
- If you have persistent bad breath
- If you have pain, especially in your face
- If you have lost weight without trying
Prognosis of Coughs
In healthy adults, acute cough is usually self-limiting and related to upper respiratory viral infections, meaning it tends to go away on its own without treatment, and rarely needs significant medical intervention. (6) The prognosis may vary for an older patient or someone whose immune system is compromised, and in such cases, an acute cough due to a flu or coronavirus may require medical treatment and hospitalization.
The prognosis for a chronic cough depends on the underlying problem and requires medical evaluation. (5)
Duration of a Cough
Coughs can last for less than two weeks, or up to eight weeks or longer. Acute coughs typically last for less than three weeks. (3) Chronic coughs last longer than eight weeks (or longer than four weeks in children). (1)
Treatment and Medication Options for Coughs
How to Stop Coughing
A cough that results from a virus can’t be treated with?antibiotics. You can, however, soothe it with the following home remedies: (1)
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Liquid helps thin the mucus in your throat, and warm liquids, such as broth, tea, or lemon juice, are soothing.
- Suck on cough drops or hard candies, which may ease a dry cough (one that doesn’t produce phlegm/mucus) and soothe an irritated throat.
- Have a spoonful of honey. One teaspoon of honey may help loosen a cough (never give honey to children younger than 1 year old because honey can contain bacteria harmful to infants).
- Use a cool mist humidifier or take a steamy shower to moisturize the air.
Other natural remedies include:
- Elevating your head with extra pillows when you’re sleeping
- Gargling warm salt water to remove mucus and soothe your throat
Cough medicines are typically used only for acute coughs that cause a lot of discomfort, interfere with sleep, and are not associated with any potentially more serious symptoms. (1)
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, like cough syrups and cough suppressants, may help you treat the symptoms of a cough. But research suggests that these medicines don’t work any better than placebos (inactive medicines). (1)
If your cough is caused by an infection, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic or antiviral medication. (3)
If you have GERD, you may be prescribed a proton pump inhibitor, which is a kind of medicine that reduces the amount of stomach acid produced by glands in the lining of your stomach.
Prevention of Coughs
Many coughs are caused by the common cold. To help reduce your risk of getting a cold, wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds (use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available), avoid close contact with sick people, and try not to touch your face with unwashed hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (7)
Home remedies like staying hydrated and moisturizing your bedroom with a humidifier can help you ease a cough if you already have one. Also avoid tobacco smoke, which can make your cough worse or may be the main cause of it.
Complications of a Cough
Most coughs are not serious and will go away on their own or after the underlying cause has been treated. Call your doctor or healthcare provider if your cough doesn't go away after a few weeks or if it involves the following symptoms: (1)
- Coughing up thick mucus that is green to yellow in color
- Shortness of breath
- Ankle swelling or weight loss
Call for emergency medical care if you or your child is:
- Choking or vomiting
- Having difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Experiencing chest pain
- Coughing up bloody or pink-tinged phlegm, which can be caused by a variety of lung conditions (8)
Research and Statistics: Who Has a Cough
Cough is the most common symptom that patients report when they visit healthcare providers. (3)
In the United States, cough is the most common reason why people seek medical attention and is the second most common reason for a general medical examination, adding up to more than 26 million office visits annually. (9)
Chronic cough is cited as the reason for up to 38 percent of pulmonary outpatient visits.
Conditions Related to Coughs
A cough is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, according to the CDC. (10) The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). (11) A dry cough is a cough that does not bring up phlegm (mucus), according to the Chest Foundation. (12)
If you develop trouble breathing or persistent pain or pressure in the chest along with your cough, you should get medical attention immediately, according to the CDC, as these are emergency warning signs for COVID-19. But most people with COVID-19 have mild illness and are able to recover at home, the CDC notes. (13)
Other causes of coughs in general include: (1)
- Medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Lung cancer
- Bronchiectasis (a chronic lung condition in which abnormal widening of bronchial tubes prevents mucus clearing)
- Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
- Choking (especially in children)
- Chronic sinusitis (chronic sinus infection)
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation
- Croup (especially in young children, which causes a characteristic barking cough) (14)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Heart failure
- Neuromuscular diseases that weaken the coordination of upper airway and swallowing muscles
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — especially in young children
- Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
- Strong smells (like cleaners and perfumes) (3)
- Pet dander
Resources We Love
The Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization that focuses on clinical practice, education, and research. It provides information on cough, chronic cough, croup, and other cough-related conditions.
MedlinePlus is a service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world's largest medical library, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The CDC is the nation’s health protection agency, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC fights disease and provides health information that helps Americans stay safe.
Additional reporting by?Jennifer D'Angelo Friedman.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Cough.?Mayo Clinic. June 21, 2019.
- Coughing. MedlinePlus. April 2020.
- Cough.?Cleveland Clinic. March 30, 2018.
- Cough. MedlinePlus. April 30, 2020.
- Chronic Cough. Mayo Clinic. July 9, 2019.
- Recommendations for the Management of Cough in Adults. Thorax. September 2006.
- Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 11, 2019.
- Coughing Up Blood. Mayo Clinic. April 7, 2018.
- Assessment and Management of Chronic Cough. Comparative Effectiveness Reviews. January 2013.
- Symptoms of Coronavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 20, 2020.
- Q&A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19). World Health Organization. April 8, 2020.
- Cough. Chest Foundation. January 2018.
- Testing for COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 17, 2020.
- Croup. Mayo Clinic. April 11, 2019.