Everyone coughs occasionally, but a chronic cough tends to cause worry. Find out more about the symptoms and causes, as well as treatments for a cough that won’t go away.
Chronic Cough | What You Should Know
What Is a Chronic Cough?
Usually, we cough because of an acute illness like a cold or hayfever. These coughs tend to clear up relatively quickly, from a few days to a few weeks.
A chronic cough, on the other hand, lingers. It lasts more than eight weeks in adults and four weeks in children. And, sometimes it can last months or even years.
A persistent cough often causes anxiety and frustration because it can take a long time to diagnose.
Additionally, coughing disrupts sleep leading to fatigue, difficulty focusing, and poor work performance.
Persistent coughing also takes a physical toll, from fainting, vomiting, and broken ribs, to urinary incontinence.
Meanwhile, medical tests and lost work productivity can end up costing a lot of money.
What Causes a Chronic Cough?
Chemical irritation from smoking is one of the leading causes of a chronic cough. And it can be a sign of a severe underlying condition such as pneumonia, emphysema, or cancer.
Luckily, persistent coughs for non-smokers are usually less worrying. Here are some of the most common causes.
Infections such as flu, pneumonia, or the common cold cause coughing. Sometimes, long after most other symptoms clear up, a cough can linger.
More severe infections like fungal lung infections, tuberculosis, and other bacterial infections may also cause a chronic cough.
Postnasal Drip (Upper Airway Cough Syndrome)
In response to injury or irritants, the nasal membranes produce more mucus. The extra mucus has to go somewhere. If it drips down the back of the throat, it can trigger a cough reflex.
Most people with postnasal drip experience more coughing at night, and they’re usually aware of a tickling sensation in their throats. However, it’s not always the case, and coughing can happen at any time.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is a condition where stomach content makes its way up the esophagus, resulting in heartburn, belching, and coughing, amongst other symptoms.
In some cases, GERD can cause coughing without heartburn. Stomach acid irritates nerves in the lower esophagus, which can trigger coughing as well.
Many people associate asthma with wheezing and breathlessness, but it’s not always the case.
With cough-variant asthma, for example, a persistent cough is often the only symptom.
At other times, allergens and irritants cause coughing without other asthma symptoms.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes airway obstruction. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and it mostly affects ex-smokers.
Blood Pressure Drugs
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors have a notable role in treating heart failure and blood pressure.
Despite giving good results, ACE inhibitors have one drawback – chronic coughing. An estimated 20% of people taking ACE inhibitors experience persistent coughing.
Less Common Causes
Though it’s less common, environmental irritants can also cause a nagging cough. Air fresheners, perfume, and detergents are some of the culprits.
Other less common conditions include:
- Whooping cough
- Lung cancer
- Cystic fibrosis
- Damage or inflamed airways ( bronchiectasis or bronchiolitis)
- Chronic scarring of the lungs
- Food particles or foreign bodies (aspiration)
- Heart disease
- Psychological disorders
Who Is at Risk of Getting a Chronic Cough?
Smoking or frequent exposure to secondhand smoke are the leading risk factors.
Age, abdominal obesity, and occupational exposure to dust or fumes are less significant risk factors.
RELATED: Why Do We Cough?
When Should I See a Doctor?
Coughing, for no reason, can be worrying. Fortunately, a lingering cough is usually not dangerous. But when accompanied by other symptoms, it’s best to see your doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms include:
- Prolonged fever
- Coughing up excessive sputum or blood
- Chest pain, wheezing, or shortness of breath
- Weakness or fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
You should also talk to your doctor if a lingering cough disrupts your sleep or affects work.
How Can I Treat a Chronic Cough?
Firstly, your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant to relieve the symptoms.
For effective chronic cough treatment, however, it’s vital to find the cause of your cough. Usually, an underlying disease is to blame. Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat your condition, including:
- Antibiotics for bacterial, fungal, or mycobacterial infections.
- Inhaled asthma drugs (corticosteroids and bronchodilators) that reduce inflammation and open airways are an effective treatment for asthma-related coughs.
- Antihistamines, corticosteroids, and decongestants are best for postnasal drip and allergies.
- Acid blockers can treat acid reflux when lifestyle changes don’t work.
Your doctor may prescribe an alternative if you’re taking an ACE inhibitor.
Finally, if you’re a smoker, the best treatment is quitting. Your doctor can help you kick the habit.
To sum up, a chronic cough is one of the most common reasons for someone to visit the doctor. Most cases aren’t severe and have an underlying condition which your doctor may treat with prescription medication.
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