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.
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.
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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.
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:
There are many things that can make you cough. Some of them include:
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.
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.
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:
If you or your child have a chronic disease you should call your healthcare provider for specific advice.
In general, call your healthcare provider if you have a cough that will not go away and these symptoms:
Go to an emergency room or call 911 if you have a cough and you:
To diagnose what’s behind your cough, your healthcare provider will take a medical history, give you a physical exam, and may order some tests. As part of the exam, your provider will check your vital signs, like temperature and the number of breaths you take. They might check your oxygen levels, do a spirometry test in the office, or order a chest X-ray or lung function tests if your cough has lasted a long time.
Your provider may ask:
Pregnancy doesn’t usually make you cough, but your immune system does change. This could mean that you get a cough or cold while you’re pregnant. Also, the cold or cough might last longer.
Contact your healthcare provider if your illness lasts longer than you expect or if you have trouble eating, sleeping or breathing.
If you cough after eating, you might have had something “go down the wrong way,” meaning it went toward your lungs instead of your stomach. Our upper airways are set up to stop food or drink from going all the way into our lungs most of the time. If food does go toward the "wrong pipe" it’ll make you cough, but it’s not usually serious. Sometimes what you’re eating or drinking can make it past that protection and actually go into your lungs. This is called aspiration, and it can happen if you’ve got problems with swallowing or other digestive or lung issues. If you frequently have issues with coughing and eating, let your healthcare provider know.
Cough is a symptom of COVID-19. It can also be part of a post-COVID syndrome (or long COVID).
As part of long COVID, a cough can continue for weeks or months after you’ve been infected. You’ll probably have other symptoms, too, like feeling very tired, having trouble concentrating or remembering things, and/or having trouble breathing.
Contact your healthcare provider about being tested for COVID-19 if you haven’t been diagnosed with it yet. If you have, follow the suggestions of your provider about how to deal with ongoing symptoms.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Having a cough often means nothing serious. It’s normal (and helpful) to cough in certain situations. Coughing helps you get rid of things in your throat and airways that are irritating or making it harder to breathe. If you also have other symptoms like trouble breathing, fever, trouble eating or sleeping, or you’re coughing up bloody or colored sputum, call your healthcare provider for advice. Because young kids can’t tell us what they're feeling, it’s a good idea to call your child’s provider if they have a cough and fever or a cough that sounds uncomfortable or concerning to you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/22/2022.
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