A cough is a common symptom of respiratory illness, but it can also be a benign way for your body to respond when something irritates your air passages or throat. The irritant “tickles” your nerves and the nerves send a message to your brain, which in turn tells your chest to push out air and expel the irritant.
An occasional cough is fine; but if your cough is persistent or has other symptoms accompanying it, it might be time to see your doctor.
What Causes Your Cough?
Coughing is a normal reflex designed to clear your throat of irritants. If your airway becomes clogged with smoke, dust, or allergens, you may find yourself coughing. Cold or flu is a common cause of coughing. Having a respiratory tract infection is no fun. These illnesses are caused by a virus and can last several days or longer. Another common cause of coughing is smoking. Chronic smokers may develop a chronic cough known as smoker’s cough.
Asthma can also cause a person’s cough, which is often accompanied by wheezing, making for a distinctive symptom for a doctor to recognize. Allergies and postnasal drip can be a culprit as well.
There are several categories of cough classified by doctors. They include:
- A cough that persists for less than three weeks is called an acute cough
- A cough that extends between three and eight weeks, but improves, is called a subacute cough
- A chronic cough is one that extends more than eight weeks
Board-certified pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine specialist Sigfredo Aldarondo, M.D., of Pulmonary Care of Central Florida states, “In most cases, the cough is simply an indicator of a benign symptom and self-limiting, lasting a few days, and then it’s gone.”
However, sometimes, the cough is an underlying symptom of a more serious health disorder. It’s important to know what to look for so you can know when it’s time to call your doctor.
When Should You See Your Doctor?
Ironically, sometimes the irritant making you cough may not be in the lungs but in the voice box.
Upper airway cough syndrome can occur when the culprit for the cough isn’t in the lungs but is in the voice box. This disorder stems from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition allows the contents of the stomach to flow back into the esophagus. This stimulates a tracheal reflex that causes the person to cough.
Dr. Aldarondo suggests that if the cough is persistent and associated with other symptoms such as shortness of breath, or discolored sputum, “this could be an important symptom to respond to.” Having a comprehensive conversation between the patient and doctor, and potential testing will help determine the underlying cause of the condition.
Most coughs clear up within one to two weeks. If your cough remains persistent, it could be time to call your doctor. See your doctor if your cough is accompanied by:
- Coughing up thick or discolored mucus
If you’re having trouble breathing, experiencing chest pains, or are coughing up blood, you need immediate care.
How Can I Take Care of My Cough?
If you’re not experiencing any of the above symptoms, and if your cough isn’t lingering, you may be able to find relief from the symptoms by:
- Avoid smoke from tobacco products
- Drink fluids to loosen the mucus in your throat
- Run a cool mist humidifier or take a hot shower
- Sucking on hard candies or cough drops
- Take a teaspoon of honey to soothe the irritation
Note that these instructions are intended for the adult patient. For example, a younger child could choke on a cough drop and honey is not suitable for children under one-year-old because it can contain bacteria that could be harmful.
If you’re considering over-the-counter cold or cough medicines, be aware they are designed to treat the symptoms of cough or cold and not any underlying illnesses such as a respiratory infection such as pneumonia or bronchitis.
Could My Cough Be a Sign of Something Worse?
Coughing is usually benign; however, it can be a sign of other illnesses. Coughs are a valuable diagnostic tool for your clinician to use to determine your underlying condition.
Your doctor is trained to analyze your cough in five key areas:
- The behavior of the cough – When and why does it happen?
- The characteristics of the cough – Is it hacking, wet or dry?
- The duration of the cough – How long has the cough lingered?
- The effects of the cough – Does it cause sleeplessness or other illnesses?
- The grade of the cough – How persistent and debilitating is it?
It should be noted that coughing is a symptom of the COVID-19 illness. If you have a dry cough, fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath, please contact your doctor and consider testing for this illness.
Every adult can experience a periodic cough now and again. However, if your cough extends beyond three weeks or you have any other symptoms it’s time for a consultation with your doctor. Your cough could be a sign of many more disorders other than a simple cold or allergies. Coughs can be dry, which is experienced as a kind of tickle in the back of the throat, or productive, which is when the cough produces mucus. Your doctor will conduct a comprehensive exam to determine the quality of your cough and discuss the underlying symptoms.
A subacute cough that lingers after an infection is known as airway hyperresponsiveness. This means your airways are still irritated and swollen. But other, more serious disorders, such as whooping cough or even tuberculosis, could be a concern. Chronic coughs lasting more than eight weeks could be a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, or even lung cancer.
The vast majority of coughs are the body’s coping mechanism designed simply to remove irritants, however. While coughs can linger, they are rarely something to worry about.