A cough is a common reflex action that aims to clear the throat of mucus or foreign irritants. Coughing to clear the throat is typically an infrequent action, although there are a number of other conditions that can cause more frequent bouts of coughing.
In general, a cough that lasts for less than three weeks is known as an acute cough.
A cough that lasts between three weeks and eight weeks, improving by the end of the period, is known as a sabacute cough.
A persistent cough that lasts for over eight weeks is known as a chronic cough.
Most coughs will clear up, or at least significantly improve, within two weeks. If you cough up blood or have a â€œbarkingâ€ cough, consult with a doctor. Any cough that has not improved after a few weeks may be serious and you should see a doctor.
A cough can be caused by a number of conditions, both temporary and permanent.
Clearing the Throat
A cough is the standard way of clearing the throat. When the airways become clogged with mucus or foreign particles such as smoke or dust, a cough is a reflex reaction that attempts to clear the particles and make breathing easier.
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively infrequent, but coughing will increase with exposure to irritants such as smoke.
Viruses and Bacteria
The most common cause of a cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or flu. This is usually caused by a virus and may only last for a few days or a week. Caused by the flu may take some extra time to clear up.
Smoking is the second most common cause of coughing. A cough caused by smoking is almost always a chronic cough, with a distinctive sound. It is often known as â€œsmokerâ€™s lungâ€ or a â€œsmokerâ€™s cough.â€
The most common cause of coughing in young children is asthma. Typically, asthmatic coughing involves wheezing, making it easily identifiable. Mild cases of asthma may just be observed, but more severe cases will require treatment using an inhaler. It is possible for children to grow out of asthma as they get older.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include; damage to the vocal cords; post-nasal drip, bacterial infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough and croup; and serious conditions such as pulmonary embolisms and heart failure. Another common condition that can cause chronic cough is gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD). In this condition stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in the trachea causing the person to cough. (CHEST) Some coughs are diagnosed as being psychological.
It is possible that some medications will cause coughing, although this is generally a rare side effect. ACE inhibitors, which are commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, can cause coughing which stops when the medication is discontinued.
Most coughs will clear up, or at least significantly improve, within two weeks. Any cough that has not improved by this time should be seen by a doctor, as it may be a symptom of a more serious problem.
If additional symptoms develop, such as a fever, chest pains, headaches, drowsiness, or confusion, contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Coughing up blood or breathing difficulties require immediate emergency medical attention.
Coughs can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause of the cough. For most healthy adults, most treatments will involve self-care.
A cough that is the result of a virus cannot be treated with antibiotics. You can, however, soothe it in the following ways;
â€¢ keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water
â€¢ elevate your head with extra pillows when sleeping
â€¢ use cough drops to soothe the throat
â€¢ gargle hot saltwater regularly to remove mucus and soothe the throat
â€¢ avoid irritations, including smoke and dust
â€¢ add honey or ginger to hot tea to relieve the cough and clear the airway
â€¢ use decongestant sprays to unblock the nose and ease breathing
Typically, medical care will involve your doctor looking down your throat, listening to the cough, and asking about any other symptoms.
If the cough is likely to be due to bacteria, oral antibiotics will be prescribed. You will usually need to take the medication for a week to fully cure the cough.
If no cause can be found for the cough, your doctor may order additional tests. This could include a chest X-ray to assess whether the lungs are clear, along with blood and skin tests if an allergic response is suspected. In some cases, phlegm or mucus may be collected to be analyzed for signs of bacteria or tuberculosis.
It is very rare for a cough to be the only symptom of heart problems, but a doctor may request an ECG or echocardiography to ensure that the heart is functioning correctly and is not causing the cough.
Difficult cases may require additional testing. A CT examination offers a more in-depth view of the airways and chest, and it can be useful when determining the cause of the cough. If the CT scan does not show the cause, you may be referred to a G.I. specialist (gastrointestinal) or a pulmonary (lung) specialist to have esophageal pH monitoring looking for evidence of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) or other testing performed.
Cough suppressants are typically not used except in cases where treatment is either not possible or extremely unlikely to be successful.