by Rick Alan
A cough is a sudden expulsion of air from the lungs. Its purpose is usually to clear secretions and inhaled foreign substances from the lungs and respiratory tract.
There are different types of cough:
Subacute cough is often a cough that follows a respiratory infection. It can also be caused be exposure to irritants or to anything that can cause chronic cough.
A chronic cough can be caused by many factors. Common examples include:
The main risk factor for cough is being exposed to irritants, for example:
A cough can be a symptom of an underlying condition.
Coughs can be productive or dry. You may find that your cough is worse when waking up and during the night while lying down.
Call your doctor if you have:
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if your cough is accompanied by:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Acute cough is usually diagnosed by its accompanying symptoms.
During the diagnosis, your doctor will look for symptoms that suggest an underlying cause. Tests may include:
The best treatment for a cough is to treat the underlying condition.
There are many over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products available. Examples include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives (cough suppressants).
Note: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends against using OTC cough and cold products to treat infants and children younger than four years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including death, convulsions, and rapid heart rate.
Consider putting a steam vaporizer or cool-mist humidifier in your room. This type of moisture therapy may help to make secretions looser and easier to cough up.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to quit. Smoking affects your lung function and increases your risk of many diseases.
If you are diagnosed with a cough, follow your doctor's instructions.
To help avoid a cough:
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Lung Association
The Canadian Lung Association
American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org .
American College of Chest Physicians website. Available at: http://www.chestnet.org .
Chronic cough: lifestyle and home remedies. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayocli... . Updated May 14, 2011. Accessed January 11, 2012.
Cough. Family Doctor.org. website. Available at: http://familydocto... . Accessed January 11, 2012.
The Merck Manual of Medical Information (online version). 2nd ed. 2005.
Practice guideline—cough: diagnosis and management. American Family Physician website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0215/p567.html . Published February 15, 2007. Accessed January 12, 2012.
1/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Public health advisory: Nonprescription cough and cold medicine use in children—FDA recommends that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products not be used for infants and children under 2 years of age. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/advisory/cough_cold_2008.htm . Accessed January 30, 3008.
1/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM Jr. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:1149-1153.
11/12/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Smith S, Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(9):CD001831.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 09/30/2012