A cough is a sudden burst of air from the lungs. It can help to clear mucus or foreign items from the airways.

There are different types of cough:

  • Acute—lasts for less than 3 weeks
  • Subacute—lasts 3 to 8 weeks
  • Chronic—lasts longer than 8 weeks


Acute coughs are often caused by infections, such as colds or the flu. Other causes may be:

A subacute cough often follows a respiratory infection or irritation.

A chronic cough has many causes. Common ones are:

Alveoli (Air Sacs) of Lung

Chronic Bronchitis
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Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk of coughs are:

  • Infections
  • Smoking or being near smoke
  • Harmful fumes
  • Allergens, such as pollen and dust
  • Air pollution


Coughs can have fluid or be dry. A cough may be worse when waking up or when lying down.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.

An acute cough is usually diagnosed by symptoms that occur with it.

If coughing is severe or long lasting, tests may be done to look for the cause. Tests may be:

  • Blood tests
  • Skin tests
  • Analysis of a sputum sample

Images may be taken to look at the lungs and other structures. They may include:

Other tests may include:


The goal is to treat the underlying cause of a cough. It is also to ease symptoms and prevent further problems. Coughs due to infections often go away on their own. Other coughs may need treatment. Some people may be referred to a specialist.

Depending on the cause of the cough, some options may be:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as:
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medicines, such as:
    • Cough and cold medicines
    • Corticosteroids by mouth, inhalers, or nasal sprays—to reduce inflammation
    • Bronchodilators—to open the airways
    • Acid reducers—for people with acid reflux


Things that may help reduce the risk of a long term cough are:

  • Not smoking
  • Using masks and ventilation—when near harmful fumes or airborne substances


American Lung Association
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians


The Lung Association


Chronic cough in adults—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed March 29, 2021.
Cough. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: Accessed March 29, 2021.
Mathur A, Liu-Shiu-Cheong PSK, et al. The management of chronic cough. QJM. 2019;112(9):651-656.
Last reviewed December 2020 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 3/29/2021

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