What is a cough?
A cough is a normal body function that helps protect the lungs from debris. It can be a symptom of many types of respiratory conditions, but often it is caused by common cold or flu viruses and allergies. Most coughs can be treated at home with simple cough remedies.
A cough is a spontaneous reflex. Your throat and airways have nerves that sense debris and irritants. When mucous, dust, chemicals, or germs enter your throat and airways, the nerves will sense them and you will automatically cough to get rid of them. This helps keep your lungs clear and healthy.
Symptoms of a cough
If you have a cough, you may experience:
- Tightness in the chest
- Chest pain
- Dry cough
- Wet cough, producing mucus
- Shortness of breath
If you have a virus or allergies, you may also experience other symptoms, including:
A cough caused by allergies or a virus may last up to three weeks. If your cough lasts longer, it may be considered a chronic cough and may require medical attention.
Causes of cough
A cough is a normal reflex to keep your lungs clear. You may start coughing if you inhale dust, chemicals, smoke, or air pollutants.
While occasional coughing can be normal, other, more serious conditions may cause coughing, including:
- Upper respiratory infection from a cold or flu virus
- Smoking and secondhand smoke
- Heart failure
- Gastroesophageal reflux disorder, GERD
- Lung disease like emphysema or cystic fibrosis
- Lung cancer
- Some medications, such as ACE inhibitors
Who can get a cough
Anyone can develop a cough when they are around secondhand smoke, dust, or other chemicals. This a healthy response to protect the lungs and keep them clear of fluid and irritating substances. People with allergies may also develop a cough when they encounter allergens.
Anyone can also contract a common cold or flu virus, which can produce a cough. People with asthma or lung disease may experience worse coughing from a cold or flu virus than people with healthy lungs.
However, lung diseases are less common. Experts don’t know what causes all lung diseases, but some pollutants and chemicals like asbestos and radon may lead to disease like asthma, emphysema, or lung cancer. Some diseases like cystic fibrosis are genetic.
Tests for a cough
Coughs are common and can usually be treated at home with cough remedies. However, if your cough lasts longer than three weeks, you may need to visit your doctor.
Your doctor may take your personal and medical history and examine your throat, ears, sinuses, take your temperature, and listen to heart and lungs. They may ask you how long you’ve had the cough and about your symptoms.
Depending on your symptoms, they may perform more tests, including:
- Throat swab
- Chest or sinus X Ray
- Sputum culture, if you are coughing up mucus
- Lung function test
Treatment for a cough
There is no cure for a cough, but it can be treated. Most coughs go away on their own and can be managed with home cough remedies. These treatments may include:
To manage your cough at home, your can use over-the-counter medications from your pharmacy, including:
- Cough medicines
- Cough drops or lozenges
Do not give cough medicines or cough drops to children under age four. Some people should not take cough medicines and decongestants. Make sure to speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
Your doctor may prescribe some medications, including:
- Corticosteroid inhalers or pills
- Reflux medications
Home care and alternative cough remedies
If you are sick with a cold or flu virus, it is important to rest and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Fluids may also help thin the mucus.
You may also be able to use other home cough remedies, including:
- Hot lemon and honey drink
- Vaporizer or steamy shower
- Saline drops or nasal spray to relieve congestion
- A chest rub with peppermint or eucalyptus oil
Do not give honey to children under age one. Do not use peppermint or eucalyptus oil on or near the face of children under age six.
If you are not sick or you have allergies, you may need to make lifestyle adjustments like quitting smoking or avoiding allergens and secondhand smoke.
Complications of a cough
Complications of a cough may include:
- A high-pitched sound when inhaling
- A sudden, violent cough
- A cough that lasts longer than three weeks
- Chest pain
- High fever
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
If you develop these symptoms, you should seek medical attention.
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St. Luke's Hospital: "Cough."
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American Lung Association: "Diagnosis and Treating Cough."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis).
Tisserand, R. Young, R. Essential Oil Safety Second Edition, Elsevier, 2014.
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