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Cough

 

Definition

A cough is a sudden burst of air from the lungs. It can help to clear secretions or foreign items from the lungs and respiratory tract.

There are different types of cough:

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

Causes    TOP

An acute cough is usually caused by an infection, such as a cold or the flu. In some cases, an acute cough can be the sign of other conditions, such as:

Subacute cough is often a cough that comes after a respiratory infection like a cold or flu. It can also happen after breathing in things that irritate your airways.

A chronic cough has many causes. Common examples include:

Alveoli (Air Sacs) of Lung

Chronic Bronchitis

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

 

Risk Factors    TOP

Factors that may increase your risk of developing a cough include:

  • Infection
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Harmful fumes
  • Allergens, such as pollen and dust
  • Smog and other environmental pollutants

Smoking is a major risk factor for serious conditions linked to chronic cough. Most common include lung cancer and COPD.

 

Symptoms    TOP

Coughs can have fluid or be dry. You may find that your cough is worse when waking up and at the night when you are lying down.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if you have:

  • Acute cough that worsens or does not go away on its own
  • Cough lasting more than 8 weeks
  • Signs of an infection, including fever and chills
  • Cough with wheezing
  • Blood in the fluid that you cough up from your airways

When Should I Call for Medical Help Immediately?

Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you have cough with:

  • Pink or frothy sputum
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
 

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Acute cough is usually diagnosed by its accompanying symptoms.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

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

Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:

During a bronchoscopy, a lighted tube with a camera is inserted into the lungs. Tissue samples can also be taken to be closely examined.

Your lung function and capacity may be tested. This can be done with pulmonary function tests or a methacholine challenge test.

 

Treatment    TOP

The best treatment for a cough is to treat the underlying condition.

Medication

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products available. These include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives.

Note: Over the counter cough and cold medicine should not be used in children under 2 years old. Check with your doctor before giving this medicine to your child.

Lifestyle Changes

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.

 

Prevention    TOP

To reduce your chances of developing a cough:

  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to quit. Smoking affects your lung function and increases your risk of many diseases.
  • When working in areas where harmful fumes or airborne substances are present:
    • Be sure the area is properly ventilated.
    • Wear a protective mask or respirator.
RESOURCES:

American Lung Association
http://www.lung.org

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
https://www.familydoctor.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

The Lung Association
https://www.lung.ca

REFERENCES:

Chronic cough in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T146529/Chronic-cough-in-adults . Updated May 25, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cough. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/symptom/cough. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Coughlin L. Cough: Diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(4):567-575.



Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 9/17/2014

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