What is coughing?
A cough is caused by a sudden reflex in the airways. It is a natural function designed to keep our airways clean of irritants and pollutants such as dust, dirt, smoke, pollen and other elements. The nerve endings in our airways cause us to cough when they become irritated.
There are different types of coughs:
Acute: Acute coughs are the type that you may experience when you have a cold or your allergies kick up. It may be irritating but you know that it won’t last a long time, usually less than three weeks. Acute coughs can also be caused by pneumonia, but subside once the pneumonia responds to treatment.
Subacute: These coughs last longer than an acute cough. They tend to linger even after the cause, like the common cold, is resolved. A subacute cough can last three to eight weeks.
Chronic: Chronic coughs last longer than the other two. In some cases this means that the person suffers with a cough for more than two months. Chronic coughs are usually caused by conditions that are more serious than the common cold. Causes can include asthma, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sinus infections and/or allergies that cause postnasal drip, and serious respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
What makes me cough?
The things that make you cough are highly individual to you. While one pollen may make you cough like crazy, it may not bother another person. On the other hand, the common cold, allergies and some respiratory diseases cause most people to cough.
The list of irritants that cause coughs is long, but the most common are:
- Interior dust and dust mites
- Exterior dust
- Smoke and cigarette smoking
- Pollution including smog, car exhaust, chemical vapors
- The common cold and allergies
- Respiratory infections and disease including pneumonia, COPD, bronchitis, asthma, lung cancer and croup in young children
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Coughing is a symptom of GERD.
How do I know when to see a doctor for my cough?
In general, if your cough has lingered beyond a couple of weeks, you should call your doctor.
If you experience shortness of breath, hives or a swollen face, swollen throat or difficulty swallowing, that is an emergency and you should call 911 immediately to be rushed to the nearest urgent care center. You do not want your airway to close.
You should call your physician or go to an AG Urgent Care Center if you experience the following:
- A cough that gets worse when you lie down. It could be a sign of heart failure.
- If you have a cough and have come into contact with a person who has tuberculosis.
- A cough that has lasted longer than two weeks.
- You spit up blood when coughing.
- A cough with fever.
- You hear a rattle in your chest when you take a breath.
- You cough up yellowish-green phlegm. It could be a sign of infection.
- You have an infant younger than 3 months old with a cough.
How is a cough treated?
There are many different ways to treat a cough and it depends upon the cause of the cough. If it is caused by the common cold or allergies, over the counter medications can often relieve the cough. Other ways to treat a cough at home include:
- Cough drops
- Decongestants the relieve post-nasal drip that causes coughs.
- A steamy shower to loosen phlegm that is causing the cough.
- Drink water.
- Stop smoking.
- Clean the house thoroughly and hire a professional to clean all air ducts in the house where dust and pollutants can build up.
If, however, the cough is caused by a respiratory disease than it will need to be treated in order to relieve the cough.
Can I prevent a cough?
If you know what causes it then you may be able to prevent a cough. If, for example, you know that allergies cause a cough, you can proactively take allergy medication to prevent the onset of a cough.
If you know that dust and other indoor or outdoor pollutants contribute to a cough, then you can avoid dusty outdoor locations and clean your home thoroughly to rid it of as much dust as possible.
If your cough is caused by smoking, stop smoking. Seek support and smoking cessation help.
In cases where respiratory disease causes a cough, work with your AG Urgent Care doctor to find the best treatment and prevention.