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
A subacute cough often follows a respiratory infection or irritation.
A chronic cough has many causes. Common ones are:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Postnasal drip, which may be due to:
- Inhaling irritants often
- Sinus inflammation
- Certain medicines, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
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Things that raise the risk of coughs are:
- 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:
- Staying away from irritants such as smoke, dust, or fumes
- Strategies to quit smoking
- Using a cool mist humidifier—to loosen mucus
- 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
Chronic cough in adults—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/chronic-cough-in-adults-approach-to-the-patient. Accessed March 29, 2021.
Cough. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/symptom/cough. 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