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What is a cough?

A cough is a symptom of many different medical conditions, some of which are serious. In most instances, a cough will resolve by itself

A cough is a rapid expulsion of air from the lungs that clears the throat and breathing tubes of foreign particles, microbes, irritants, fluids, and mucus. It can be voluntary (done deliberately) or involuntary (out of your control or as part of a reflex).

What causes a cough?

There are many different conditions or environmental factors that can cause a cough.

Causes of cough include:

  • Allergies, such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever
  • Infections that affect the respiratory tract or sinuses, such as cold, flu, sinusitis, whooping cough, bronchitis, or pneumonia
  • Cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dust or pollution
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Heart failure
  • Medical conditions, such as asthma, bronchiectasis, or COPD
  • Medications, such as an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor (ACE inhibitor)
  • Postnasal drip
  • Pulmonary Embolism
  • Smoking
  • Tuberculosis

What are the symptoms of a cough?

Coughs can be classified as either dry (non-productive) or chesty (productive).

  • Dry coughs cause a scratchy and tickly feeling at the back of the throat and often develop following a cold or after exposure to dust or fumes. Dry coughs don’t produce any phlegm.
  • Chesty coughs produce phlegm or mucus that comes up from the back of your throat, nasal passages, or lungs. When you cough, you may hear a "rattling" sound from your chest.

How is a cough diagnosed?

Most coughs resolve themselves and do not require medical treatment.

You should see a doctor if your cough:

  • Causes shortness of breath, chest pain, or you are coughing up blood
  • Is particularly severe
  • Lasts for more than a couple of weeks and doesn’t seem to be getting better
  • Has no obvious cause or if you have any other worrying symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss

Your doctor will take a history of your symptoms and perform a physical examination. They may also conduct some tests, such as blood tests, a chest X-ray, allergy tests, breathing tests, or a sputum sample.

How is a cough treated?

Most coughs will clear up by themselves within a couple of weeks and don't require any treatment. Some people may seek over-the-counter remedies from a pharmacy to help control the cough or make it easier to cough up phlegm.

Treatments for cough may include:

  • Antitussives to stop a dry cough such as dextromethorphan, hydrocodone, codeine
  • Expectorants for a chesty cough to bring up phelgm, such as guaifenesin
  • Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Antihistamines
  • Home remedies, such as honey and lemon
  • Medications to treat the underlying cause if known, for example, inhaled steroids to treat asthma or antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection