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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.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call my healthcare provider about a cough?
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:
- Wheezing (noise when you breathe out).
- Fever over 101.5 Fahrenheit or fever that lasts more than a day or two.
- Phlegm (thick mucus, also called sputum), especially phlegm that is yellow, green, or bloody.
Go to an emergency room or call 911 if you have a cough and you:
- Feel like you’re choking.
- Can't breathe well.
- See a lot of blood when you cough.
- Have severe chest pain.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if my cough is serious?
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:
- If you use or did use tobacco, marijuana, or if you do or have vaped.
- What kind of work you do.
- How long you have been coughing.
- How well you breathe when you are resting and when you are working hard.
- If the cough keeps you from sleeping well.
- If anything comes up when you cough (like phlegm or blood).
- What medicines you take.
- If you have a bad taste in your mouth.
- If you have bad breath that will not go away.
- If you have pain, especially in your face.
- If you have lost weight without trying.
Can pregnancy make you cough?
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.
What does it mean if I cough after eating?
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.
What should I know about COVID-19 and cough?
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.
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