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Causes Of Coughs: What Everyone Needs To Know 
by Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy October 04, 2005

A cough can be symptom of a chronic condition or indicate the onset of illness. Know the different types of coughs and what diseases are characterized by coughing. It's vital to know when to seek medical attention and what coughs can be serious.

Everyone coughs but the reasons for what may seem like a simple action can be numerous. A cough is simply a reflex action to keep breathing passages open. Causes can range from irritants in the air to influenza or can be as serious as pneumonia. Anyone with either a chronic cough or increased coughing needs to determine what causes the cough. Because some coughs can be serious, let the doctor determine the cause and prescribe the proper treatment.

Coughing When You’re Not Sick

A cough alone doesn’t indicate illness although many illness are characterized by coughing. A chronic cough can indicate the presence of a medical condition that may require treatment. Some of the more common causes behind a chronic or frequent cough include the following:

  • Postnasal drip. Everyone’s nose and throat makes mucous daily but when the mucous collects in the throat and becomes a constant drip, it turns annoying. The body responds by trying to cough out the irritant and clear the breathing passage. Reasons for postnasal drip include colds, allergies, spicy foods, hormonal changes, breathing very cold air, or fatigue.
  • Smoker’s cough. This one is self-explanatory: tobacco smoke is an irritant. Use of an irritant causes the body to cough in an effort to clear the airways. Over time, smoker’s cough can become more serious as COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Changes in the lungs over time can cause COPD, which can include diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Chronic or acute coughs in smokers can also indicate lung cancer.
  • Allergies. Allergies can be caused by everything from the polluted air Americans breathe to pollens in spring and fall to pet dust or dander. A dry cough caused by allergies often comes with sneezing, itchy eyes, watery eyes and a runny nose. Dry coughs can be very tiring and it’s advisable to seek treatment to find relief.
  • Asthma. Although often characterized by a wheezing cough or inability to breathe, asthma can also cause a dry cough. Many children suffer asthma but the disease is not limited to children. Many adults carry asthma with them into adulthood. Only a doctor can make an asthma diagnosis and suggest the proper treatment.
  • Acid reflux disease. Although this condition involves the gastric system and not the bronchial, acid reflux that rises into the throat can be an irritant that causes coughing. Again, this requires medical treatment.
  • Tickle or frog in the throat. No fancy medical names exist for this common sensation but a feeling of something in the throat triggers a dry cough.

There are ways to help chronic coughs that are not a symptom of illness. Stop smoking, avoid using sprays – whether it’s a hair spray or cleaner product, use a dryer instead of an outdoor clothesline, wear a mask, and avoid outside when irritants (smoke, smog, pollens) are present. Breathing in steam can also ease dry coughs.

Coughs That Come From an Illness

Whether an individual is sick enough to stay in bed or just doesn’t feel well, a cough is often an indication of illness. Someone who feels sick and has a cough needs to determine the cause and whether it’s minor or serious.

Anyone who meets any of these criteria should make an appointment with their family physician:

  • A cough that has lasted for 2 or more weeks without improvement
  • A cough that last more than few days and is accompanied by fever over 100.
  • A cough that brings up mucous that is green or yellow or is streaked with blood.
  • If coughing keeps sleep away
  • If a cough is accompanied by feeling really sick
  • Anyone with a harsh, barking cough requires medical attention. In young children, a harsh, barking cough may indicate croup which can be serious if not properly treated.

Anyone who coughs up blood, pink froth, or feels short of breath should skip the office appointment and head for the emergency room.

Common illnesses that are characterized by coughing include acute bronchitis, influenza, pneumonia, the common cold, and tuberculosis.

Acute bronchitis has symptoms that include tightness in the chest, sick but able to function, cough that produces green or yellow mucous, and a low-grade fever. Acute bronchitis responds quickly to antibiotics but without treatment can worsen.

Influenza – true flu and not a stomach bug – is unmistakable. Flu sufferers feel very ill, have acute headaches and body aches, and feel exhausted, run a high fever, and have a dry cough. To prevent influenza, have an annual flu shot. If influenza strikes, ask a doctor about anti-viral treatments that can minimize flu. Products such as Tami-Flu may work for some patients but not for others.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. Untreated, it can lead to complications and even death in elderly patients. There are two types, viral and bacterial. Symptoms of viral pneumonia include feeling sick but able to function, achy body, possible sore throat, coughing up green or yellow mucous, and low fever. Bacterial pneumonia makes patients feel very sick with pain in the chest, high fever and chills, and short of breath. Both types of pneumonia are characterized by coughing.

Common colds are something everyone suffers and most people are all too familiar with the symptoms. A cold should run its course in a week or ten days, have no fever, and include both coughs and a stuffy or runny nose. Most doctors can prescribe medications to make having a cold less miserable. Many over-the-counter products are available for cold relief but use with caution. Some can interact with prescription meds and it’s wise to read any warnings before taking a new product. Some are not advisable for pregnant women, high blood pressure patients, heart patients, and others.

Tuberculosis was once thought to be a disease of the past but has made a comeback in recent years especially among those with impaired immune systems. A positive skin test can mean a patient has either an active infection or the disease. Other symptoms include coughs with bloody streaked mucous, night sweats, weight loss, and intermittent fever. In earlier decades, tuberculosis patients were often sent away to sanitariums but today, most cases of TB can be treated with heavy antibiotics and care.

Most patients will require the expertise of a doctor to determine the cause of coughs. When suffering a common cold or from allergies, there are over the counter medications that can help relieve the cough. The two most common cough relief products are either expectorants or suppressants. Suppressants quiet the cough and can make dry coughs less harsh. Expectorants bring up thick mucous. Never use a cough medicine or product for more than a week.

Every cough has a cough and it’s best to let the doctor determine the cause. With the right treatment or medication, most coughs can be ended or made manageable.


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