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Coping with coughs

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Learn why coughs happen—and what you can do.

You may think of a cough as an annoyance and a sign of poor health. And sometimes it is. But coughing can also serve a good purpose.

A cough is a protective reflex action that helps clear your airways. Most coughs go away without treatment, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

However, in some cases a cough can be a sign of a viral infection, such as influenza or the common cold. In severe cases coughing can also be a symptom of a serious lung disorder, such as asthma or lung cancer, that requires medical treatment.

Coughing causes

Many different conditions or problems can cause you to cough. Some of the more common ones include:

An irritated throat. Common irritants include mucus dripping from the back of your nose into your throat or particles (such as smoke or pollen) that you breathe in. A cold or allergies may be behind this irritation.

Blockage. You may cough if an object—such as a peanut or candy—becomes lodged in your airways. In such cases, a good, hard cough can help you clear the object from your airways.

Inflammation. Asthma or a cold can cause airways to become inflamed or narrowed, which can trigger coughing.

Lung damage. Conditions that can damage the lungs include pneumonia and bronchitis.

Smoking. Breathing cigarette or cigar smoke—even if it's someone else's smoke—can cause chronic coughing that is much worse in the morning. Smoking damages your lungs and interferes with the normal process that your lungs use to clear excess mucus. If you smoke, intense coughing may also signal the development of illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or lung cancer.

Disease. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and congestive heart failure can both cause coughing.

Treating a cough

Some coughs go away after treatment at home, but others may require you to see a doctor.

For a mild cough, you may be able to get relief from over-the-counter medications, such as suppressants that block the coughing reflex. Other cough medications help you cough more effectively and clear mucus from your airways. Ask your doctor which medication you should take. And make sure to talk to a doctor before giving cough medicine to a child. Questions have been raised about the safety of these products in children.

If you smoke, the most effective way to stop coughing is to quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to kick the habit.

The American Academy of Family Physicians and other medical experts say you should see a doctor about a cough if you:

  • Wheeze or make a whistling sound when you breathe in.
  • Cough up discolored phlegm.
  • Run a temperature higher than 101 degrees.
  • Lose weight without trying.
  • Cough up blood.
  • Sweat profusely while you're sleeping at night.
  • Cough consistently for more than a few weeks.

What's causing you to cough may not be immediately apparent. Your doctor may have to conduct a chest exam and order lab tests to diagnose the cause of your cough and prescribe the right treatment.

Protect others

Coughing can lead to the spread of germs that make others sick. When you cough, cover your mouth with a tissue and throw it into a wastebasket. And remember to wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

Reviewed 11/21/2022


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