What is a cough?

A cough is a natural reflex involving breathing and muscle contractions. A cough helps your body heal, protect itself and clear your throat and airways of irritants and mucus. There are three types of cough:

  • Acute cough, which begins suddenly and lasts 2-3 weeks.
  • Subacute cough (also called persistent cough), which stays after an infection and lasts 3-8 weeks.
  • Chronic cough, which lasts longer than 8 weeks.

Who is more likely to experience a cough?

Anyone can get a cough. Cough is the most common symptom reported in the offices of healthcare providers.

Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of a cough?

In general, common causes of a cough include:

  • Irritants or allergens.
    • Smoke.
    • Strong smells (like cleaners and perfumes).
    • Mold.
    • Dust.
    • Pollen.
    • Pet dander.
  • Mucus.
  • Certain medicines, like angiotensin enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.

Beyond these causes, medical conditions can cause cough. Acute cough and subacute cough can be caused by:

Chronic cough can be caused by:

How is a cough diagnosed?

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. He or she might 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.
  • What kind of work you do or did.
  • How long you have been coughing.
  • How well you breathe when you are resting and when you are working hard.
  • If the cough is stopping you from sleeping well.
  • If anything comes up when you cough (like phlegm or blood).
  • What medicines you are taking.
  • 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.

Care and Treatment

What can be done to control or relieve a cough?

Treating a cough will depend on what is causing the cough. For infections, your doctor might prescribe some type of antibiotic or antiviral medication. For GERD, he or she might prescribe a proton pump inhibitor.

Drinking water can help ease a cough. In addition, adding it to the air with a vaporizer or having 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, smoke, or other allergens.

When to Call the Doctor

What symptoms of a cough are cause for concern (when should I call my doctor)?

You might get more specific directions from your healthcare provider if you, or your child, has a chronic disease, such as asthma. In general, call your healthcare provider if you have a cough that will not go away and these symptoms:

  • Wheezing.
  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Phlegm (also called sputum), especially phlegm that is yellow, green, or bloody.

If you have a cough and seem to be choking, cannot breathe well, or if you see a lot of blood, call 911 or go to an emergency room.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/30/2018.


  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Cough. ( Accessed 4/4/2018.
  • Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education. Disease Management. Cough. ( Accessed 4/4/2018.
  • National Institute of Health. News in Health. Cough Culprits. ( Accessed 4/4/2018.
  • Cough. In: Papadakis MA, McPhee SJ. eds. Quick Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 2017 New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Maselli D, Anzueto A. Chapter 24. Cough. In: Henderson MC, Tierney LM, Jr., Smetana GW. eds. The Patient History: An Evidence-Based Approach to Differential Diagnosis New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012.

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