Why do we cough: Causes, conditions & treatments
When you feel that tickle in your throat — or have a full-blown coughing attack — you’re probably wondering what’s up: How long will the cough last? Should you see a doctor?
For answers, look no further. Family doctors share everything you need to know about coughs and offer strategies that can help you feel better fast.
Q: Why do people get coughs?
A: A cough can sound scary. But it’s usually not a sign of something serious. In fact, it’s a sign that your body is working on your behalf. When mucus, germs, or dust get into your throat and airways, your body responds by coughing.
Occasional coughs are normal — and healthy. They’re a natural reflex and an important part of your immune system. By forcing irritants out of your lungs (at speeds of almost 50 mph), coughs are one way your body keeps its airways clear.
Q: How long does a cough last?
A: Even though the typical cough is rarely serious, it is almost always annoying. That’s because a cough can stick around for two weeks or longer. If it doesn’t go away after eight weeks, that could signal a chronic (or persistent) cough.
It’s important to call your health care provider if you have a stubborn cough like that. Everyone heals at different rates, but a chronic cough may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as asthma or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Q: What are dry, tickly coughs?
A: There can be many causes, from an allergy to a virus.
“Dry cough may also just be from an irritant and can be short-lived,” says Todd Shaffer, M.D. He’s a family doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Chemical irritants, smoke, dry air, and other pollutants are common dry-cough culprits.
“Even some medications, like those commonly used for hypertension, may cause a dry cough,” Dr. Shaffer says. One common example: angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, such as lisinopril.
Asthma and GERD can also cause a dry cough and even bring on symptoms like wheezing, Dr. Shaffer says.
Q: What are wet, phlegmy coughs?
A: This type of cough often goes hand-in-hand with flu, cold, pneumonia, or upper-respiratory infections, explains Asha Shajahan, M.D. She’s a family doctor and the director of community health at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
If your cough comes from a cold or the flu, you’ll likely experience other symptoms, such as:
- Body aches
- Nasal congestion
Wet coughs are also common with bronchitis. That’s an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs.
Short-term bronchitis (also known as a chest cold) typically improves on its own in a week to 10 days, although the cough may linger for a few weeks. But chronic bronchitis, a serious condition often caused by smoking, requires medical attention.
Q: When should I use cough medicine?
A: Over-the-counter cough drops and syrups help soothe a sore throat and prevent coughing.
“Medications that include dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, are probably the best and safest for most people,” Dr. Shaffer notes.
Check the label for important dosing information or ask your pharmacist for advice. But don’t give cough medicines to kids younger than 6 without the approval of their health care provider. Always follow the dosing directions on the label — and keep in mind any other medications you’re taking.
“When people get sick, they often take multiple over-the-counter medications to address different symptoms, without realizing that different products have similar or the same ingredients,” says Cindy Cedillo-Ruiz, M.D. She’s a family physician in Houston.
For example, you wouldn’t want to take a cough suppressant and a decongestant that also treats coughs.
Taking too much dextromethorphan, for example, can cause dangerous side effects, including:
- Blurred vision
- Severe nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or drowsiness
- Slowed breathing
- Severe irritability or nervousness
It’s a good idea to check the “active ingredients” list on the back of the medication packaging to see all the drugs contained in the product. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re taking.
Q: What are the best home remedies for a cough?
A: Look no further than your kitchen cupboard.
Warm tea to treat a cough. This can help soothe your throat, says Dr. Cedillo-Ruiz. Add lemon juice to help break up mucus and relieve pain. Lemon also provides vitamin C, an antioxidant that may give your immune system a boost.
Salt water to treat a cough. Gargling with salt water may help by breaking up the phlegm in the back of your throat, Dr. Cedillo-Ruiz says. It can also reduce swelling and irritation in your throat while killing cough-causing bacteria. Dissolve a half-teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of warm water and gargle (but don’t swallow). Repeat every three hours.
Honey to treat a cough. This not only soothes your throat — it also reduces inflammation and kills bacteria and viruses, fighting off infections that may be causing your cough. Mix 2 tablespoons of honey in a glass of warm water or tea and stir well. A word of caution: Never give honey to infants younger than a year old.
Q: When should I see a doctor about my cough?
A: Call your provider if your cough lasts more than eight weeks and at-home remedies don’t help. Or if your cough comes with fever, chills, difficulty swallowing, wheezing, or a sour taste in your mouth.
Plus, Dr. Shaffer advises, check with your doctor if you develop a cough after starting a new medication.
Need a provider? Find one near you.
Facts about coughs: Cleveland Clinic
Facts about dry coughs with chest tightness: Cleveland Clinic
Facts about bronchitis: Mayo Clinic
Facts about over-the-counter cough medicine: Mayo Clinic
Sore throat home remedies: Penn Medicine and Cleveland Clinic
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.