Cough – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Overview

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 — the velocity of air from a vigorous cough can approach 500 miles an hour. Prolonged, vigorous coughing is exhausting and can cause sleeplessness, headaches, urinary incontinence and even broken ribs.

Symptoms

Coughing is a symptom. The classification of a cough by its duration (how long it lasts) and by other specific features includes:

  • Acute cough: Sudden onset and lasts up to 3 weeks.
  • Sub-acute cough: Lasts between 3-8 weeks.
  • Chronic cough: Lasts for more than 8 weeks.
  • Productive cough: Cough than brings up phlegm.
  • Dry cough: Cough that does not bring up phlegm.
  • Nocturnal cough: Cough that only happens at night.
  • Hemoptysis: Coughing blood.

A cough can be the only sign of an illness or it can occur with symptoms of certain diseases of the lung, heart, stomach and nervous system. Some of the symptoms that commonly occur with a cough are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Decrease in exercise tolerance (easy fatigability)
  • Wheezing or a whistling breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Heartburn
  • Weight loss
  • Fever and chills
  • Night sweats
  • Difficulty swallowing or coughing when swallowing

Causes

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 common causes include:

Others cause may include:

  • 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)
  • Croup (especially in young children)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Heart failure
  • Laryngitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • Neuromuscular diseases, such as parkinsonism, which weaken the coordination of upper airway and swallowing muscles
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — especially in young children
  • Tuberculosis

Risk Factors

Risk factors for developing a chronic cough are:

  • Smoking: Current or former smoking is a major risk factor for chronic cough. This is caused by direct inhalation of cigarette toxins or secondhand smoking (breathing cigarette toxins in the air).
  • Allergies: People with allergies have an increased risk of developing cough when exposed to a specific allergy trigger.
  • Environmental: Some workplaces may have irritants in the air that one can breathe in and cause cough. High pollution areas or using coal for cooking or heating can also increase your risk of cough.
  • Chronic lung diseases: People with asthma, bronchiectasis (enlarged airways), COPD, and previous lung infections with scars are at increased risk of developing cough.
  • Female gender: Women have a more sensitive cough reflex, increasing their risk of developing chronic cough.

Diagnosis

Cough History

Your doctor will ask you questions about your cough and lifestyle:

  • When did your cough start?
  • Does your cough bring up mucus?
  • If there is mucus, what’s the consistency and color? Is there any blood?
  • What triggers your cough?
  • Have you been in close contact with people with any respiratory infections such as common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia or whooping cough?
  • What medical illnesses do you have?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • What do you do for a living? What’s your workplace like?
  • What do you do in your time off? Have you recently travelled?
  • Do you smoke cigarettes or marijuana? Do you use recreational drugs?

Physical Examination

At the doctor’s office, they will take your vital signs including your temperature. They may check your oxygen levels by attaching a small painless clip to your finger. Your doctor will look at the back of your throat and ears when necessary. They will listen to your lungs and heart with a stethoscope and may also look at your legs and skin.

Tests

Your doctor may decide to order additional tests, which could include:

  • Chest X-ray: quick and easy chest picture.
  • Blood sample: to see if your body is fighting an infection.
  • CT scan of the chest: a better quality picture of the chest.
  • Throat swab: usually done with a long cotton swab.
  • Phlegm sample: collected after a deep cough
  • Spirometry: you will be asked to breathe out hard and fast into a small plastic device to measure how well you breathe out air.
  • Methacholine challenge test: a standard asthma breathing test often used to assess for cough variant asthma.

Treatment

The treatment of your cough depends on its cause. For example, over-the-counter medication can help decrease symptoms of an upper respiratory infection such as the common cold, while more serious conditions such as COPD or asthma exacerbations usually require inhalers and other treatment.

If you have any problem, please contact your health care provider in time.


Keyword: cough.

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How Long Does Chronic Bronchial Cough Last?

Does Coughing Phlegm Mean Heart Failure?

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.