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A Cough

A Cough

A cough is the body's natural way of keeping the throat and airways clean. Humans occasionally cough when there is no disease or disorder present. Frequent or chronic coughing, however, is often a sign of an illness or disorder.


A cough can be classed as dry or productive. Productive coughing clears mucus from the throat or airways. A cough can be further classified as acute or chronic. Acute coughing tends to begin as suddenly as the result of a sinus infection, cold, or flu. Cases of acute coughing usually clear up within a few weeks. A chronic cough is one that lasts longer than three weeks.


Coughing is most commonly caused by infections that affect the upper respiratory system like the common cold and influenza. Other causes may include asthma, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, lung disease or infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis, or sinusitis. Other causes include ACE inhibitor medications used to control high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, and exposure to secondhand smoke.


Acute coughs caused by a cold or the flu can be annoying, but it typically is not a cause for concern because it is the body's natural process for removing mucus from the throat and airways. It usually clears up on its own when other symptoms subside. To control the symptom, patients may take over-the-counter cough medications or use cough drops or vaporizers. Drinking plenty of fluids can decrease the length of coughing by loosening mucus and making it easier to cough up. Keeping the throat moist will also ease coughing spells. When chronic or an acute cough is present due to other diseases or infections, medical treatment may be necessary. Infections often need to be treated with prescription antibiotics, and other diseases or disorders may require additional medications or treatments. When smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke causes a chronic cough, lifestyle changes may be necessary.


Doctors are commonly able to diagnose the cause for a cough based on the characteristics of the symptom and a physical examination. If pneumonia or other potentially severe conditions are the suspected cause, additional procedures such as X-rays may be performed. Doctors may also test lung function and check to see whether or not the patient is getting enough oxygen. In most cases, cough clears up on its own or can be managed through medications. The prognosis for underlying conditions that cause coughing may vary.