A cough is your body's way of responding when something irritates your throat or airways. An irritant stimulates nerves that send a message to your brain. The brain then tells muscles in your chest and abdomen to push air out of your lungs to force out the irritant.
An occasional cough is normal and healthy. A cough that persists for several weeks or one that brings up discolored or bloody mucus may indicate a condition that needs medical attention.
At times, coughing can be very forceful. Prolonged, vigorous coughing can irritate the lungs and cause even more coughing. It is also exhausting and can cause sleeplessness, dizziness or fainting, headaches, urinary incontinence, vomiting, and even broken ribs.
While an occasional cough is normal, a cough that persists may be a sign of a medical problem.
A cough is considered "acute" if it lasts less than three weeks. It is considered "chronic" if it lasts longer than eight weeks (four weeks in children).
Some causes of coughs include:
Common causes — acute
- Common cold
- Influenza (flu)
- Inhaling an irritant (such as smoke, dust, chemicals or a foreign body)
- Whooping cough
Common causes — chronic
- Asthma (most common in children)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Postnasal drip
- Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)
- Bronchiectasis (a chronic lung condition in which abnormal widening of bronchial tubes inhibits mucus clearing)
- Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
- Choking: First aid (especially in children)
- Chronic sinusitis
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation — worsening of symptoms
- Croup (especially in young children)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Heart failure
- Lung cancer
- Medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- 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)
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if your cough (or your child's cough) doesn't go away after a few weeks or if it also involves any one of these:
- Coughing up thick, greenish-yellow phlegm
- Experiencing a fever
- Experiencing shortness of breath
- Experiencing fainting
- Experiencing ankle swelling or weight loss
Seek emergency care if you or your child is:
- Choking or vomiting
- Having difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Coughing up bloody or pink-tinged phlegm
- Experiencing chest pain
Cough medicines usually are used only when cough is an acute condition, causes a lot of discomfort, interferes with sleep and is not associated with any of the potentially worrisome symptoms indicated above. If you use cough medicine, be sure to follow the dosing instructions.
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are intended to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds, not the underlying disease. Research suggests that these medicines haven't been proved to work any better than inactive medicine (placebo). More important, these medications have potentially serious side effects, including fatal overdoses in children younger than 2 years old.
Don't use over-the-counter medicines, except for fever reducers and pain relievers, to treat coughs and colds in children younger than 6 years old. Also, consider avoiding use of these medicines for children younger than 12 years old.
To ease your cough, try these tips:
- Suck cough drops or hard candies. They may ease a dry cough and soothe an irritated throat. Don't give them to a child under age 6, however, because of the risk of choking.
- Consider taking honey. A teaspoon of honey may help loosen a cough. Don't give honey to children younger than 1 year old because honey can contain bacteria harmful to infants.
- Moisturize the air. Use a cool mist humidifier or take a steamy shower.
- Drink fluids. Liquid helps thin the mucus in your throat. Warm liquids, such as broth tea or lemon juice, can soothe your throat.
- Avoid tobacco smoke. Smoking or breathing secondhand smoke can make your cough worse.