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.

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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