Chronic Cough: 9 Things to Know

  • Senior Caucasian man coughing during doctor's exam while doctor checks back with stethoscope
    Dealing with Chronic Coughs and Their Causes
    Everyone coughs—it’s how we clear irritants, pathogens and excess mucus from our systems. But you can have too much of a good thing. When a cough lasts longer than two months in adults or a month in children it’s chronic. There are many reasons people develop chronic coughs and though you can treat the symptoms at home, you often need a doctor to diagnose and treat the underlying cause.

  • Young Caucasian man on subway train blowing nose from cold or flu
    1. Postnasal drip causes chronic cough.
    One of the most common reasons for chronic cough is postnasal drip, when excess mucus drains down your throat. We usually produce and swallow a quart or two of mucus each day, which moistens our airways and traps harmful particles and infectious agents. If we make more mucus than our body can handle, however, it can trigger the cough reflex. Allergies, dehydration, colds, flu, dry air and spicy food are just a few of the many factors that cause postnasal drip. Treatment depends on the cause, so see your doctor if you have postnasal drip and a cough that just won’t go away.

  • Young woman using asthma nebulizer on couch
    2. People with chronic cough may have asthma.
    Asthma, which affects up to 8% of U.S. adults and children, doesn’t always mean you wheeze or have difficulty breathing. If you have ‘cough-variant asthma,’ the only symptom is a dry cough, which means you don’t cough up phlegm. Cough medicine usually won’t help cough-variant asthma. If you don’t treat it, the condition can develop into classic asthma. You can help prevent flare-ups of cough-variant asthma by avoiding tobacco smoke and allergy triggers, which can also help stop it from getting worse over time.

  • Older Caucasian man at pharmacy holding hand over chest
    3. GERD and LPR (Laryngopharyngeal Reflux) can cause chronic cough.
    GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease occurs when stomach acid flows back up into the esophagus and irritates it, which can lead to chronic cough. Laryngopharyngeal reflux, or LPR, is also caused by stomach acid, but it’s the voice box and throat that become irritated. Home remedies to ease the coughing of GERD and LPR include limiting acidic foods, caffeine, alcohol and carbonated beverages, and not eating right before bedtime. If you continue to cough, see your doctor about treating GERD or LPR.

  • man-taking-vitamins
    4. Chronic cough causes include medications.
    There is a long list of health conditions that can lead to chronic cough. Tobacco use often causes chronic smoker’s cough and can also lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Upper respiratory infections like pneumonia can leave you with a cough even when the infection is cleared. A category of blood pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors is another source of chronic cough. Sometimes the reason for a chronic cause isn’t obvious, but a doctor can help diagnose it.

  • man-lying-in-bed-with-hand-on-forehead
    5. Complications of chronic cough can be serious.
    A cough that just won’t stop can ruin a good night’s sleep, give you a sore throat, lead to headache and leave you dizzy. It could make you vomit or lose control of your bladder. People with a severe chronic cough can even fracture a rib. Broken ribs from coughing typically happen to women, where low bone density is a risk factor. Severe coughing can also prevent oxygen from getting to your brain and make you faint, which is called cough syncope.

  • Overhead shot of Caucasian woman sick at home drinking tea on couch
    6. Home remedies for chronic cough may not be enough.
    If you have a chronic cough, call your healthcare provider. In the meantime, you can treat your cough with home remedies. Drink warm liquids like broth or tea. Suck on cough drops or hard candy or try a teaspoon of honey. Keep the room air moisturized and avoid being around tobacco smoke. You can also try over-the-counter cough suppressants or expectorants, though they have not been proven to be more effective than home remedies.

  • Girl sneezing into her arm
    7. Home treatment for chronic cough in children varies by age.
    If your child coughs for longer than four weeks, or anytime you have a concern about your child’s cough, call your pediatrician. At home, if your child is younger than 6 years, do not give over-the-counter cough medicine unless your doctor advises it. It can be dangerous, even life threatening. For babies aged 3 months to 1 year, try a teaspoon or two of warm clear fluids four times a day. For children age 1 and up, offer a half to a full teaspoon of honey as needed. Children older than 6 can try cough drops or hard candy.

  • doctor, patient
    8. A family doctor can diagnose and treat chronic cough in most cases.
    Treatment for a cough depends on why you’re coughing. If it’s postnasal drip, for example, your doctor may suggest a decongestant or antihistamine. If your chronic cough is from cough-variant asthma, your doctor can treat you with the same medications used for other forms of asthma. When the underlying cause is addressed, it can help stop your cough. If necessary, your doctor can refer you to a specialist, but check your insurance first to make sure the costs will be covered.

  • Mature Caucasian woman coughing with hand on chest next to doctor or friend
    9. Warning signs in chronic coughs should be taken seriously.
    Most chronic coughs are not due to serious illness. There are times, however, when a cough warrants a prompt visit to the doctor. Symptoms include a high or persistent fever, coughing up a lot of phlegm, coughing up blood, or feeling short of breath. You should also contact your doctor if you notice unexplained weight loss, fatigue, chest pain, night sweats, or wheezing along with your cough. Serious illnesses that cause coughs include COPD and lung cancer. In most cases, your doctor can help quiet your chronic cough and let you get on with your daily routine.

Chronic Cough: 9 Things to Know | Causes of Chronic Cough

About The Author

Nancy LeBrun is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning writer and producer who has been writing about health and wellness for more than five years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Aug 27
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