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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 “barking” cough, consult with a doctor. Any cough that has not improved after a few weeks may be serious and you should see a doctor.

What Causes a Cough?

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 “smoker’s lung” or a “smoker’s cough.”


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

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.

Emergency Issues

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.

How Is a Cough Treated?

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;

  • keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • elevate your head with extra pillows when sleeping
  • use cough drops to soothe the throat
  • gargle hot saltwater regularly to remove mucus and soothe the throat
  • avoid irritations, including smoke and dust
  • add honey or ginger to hot tea to relieve the cough and clear the airway
  • use decongestant sprays to unblock the nose and ease breathing

Medical Care

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.

What Is The Outcome If Left Untreated?

In most cases, a cough will disappear naturally within a week or two after it first develops. A cough will not typically cause any long-lasting damage or symptoms.

In some cases, a severe cough may cause temporary complications such as;

  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • fractured ribs

These are very rare, and they will normally cease when the cough has been cured.

A cough that is the symptom of a more serious condition is unlikely to go away on its own. If left untreated, the condition could worsen and cause other symptoms or a worse cough.

What Preventative Measures Can Be Taken To Avoid A Cough?

While infrequent coughing is necessary to clear the airways, there are ways you can prevent catching other coughs.


Smoking is the most common cause for a chronic cough. Once this cough begins, it can be very difficult to cure. There is a wide variety of help and methods available to stop smoking, varying from gadgets such as electronic cigarettes to advice groups and support networks. Once you have stopped smoking, you will be much less likely to catch colds or suffer from a chronic cough.

Dietary Changes

The National Lung Health Association states that people who eat diets high in fruit, fiber, and flavonoids are less likely to suffer from chronic coughs. If you need help to adjust your diet, your doctor may be able to advise or refer you to a dietician.

Medical Conditions

It is advisable to stay away from anyone suffering from contagious illnesses, such as bronchitis, to avoid catching the germs. In addition you should wash your hands frequently, and not share cutlery, towels, or pillows.

If you have existing medical conditions that increase the chances of developing a cough, such as GERD or asthma, consult your doctor about different management strategies. Once correctly managed, you may find that your cough disappears, or it may become much less frequent.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kati Blake
Published on: Sep 10, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Sep 10, 2012: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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