Cough is a sudden, forceful expulsion of air from the lungs. It is one of the most common reasons people see a doctor. The function of a cough is to clear material from the airways and to protect the lungs from particles that have been inhaled. People may cough on purpose (voluntarily) or spontaneously (involuntarily).
Coughs vary considerably. A cough may be dry (unproductive) or it may be productive, bringing up blood or sputum (also called phlegm). Sputum is a mixture of mucus, debris, and cells expelled by the lungs. It may be clear, yellow, green, or streaked with blood.
People who cough very hard may strain their rib muscles or cartilage, causing pain in the chest, particularly when they breathe in, move, or cough again. Cough may be very distressing and interfere with sleep. However, if coughing increases slowly over decades, as it may in smokers, people may hardly be aware of it.
Cough occurs when the airways are irritated. Likely causes of cough depend on whether the cough has lasted less than 3 weeks (acute) or 3 weeks or longer (chronic).
For acute cough, the most common causes are
For chronic cough, the most common causes are
Less common causes:
For acute cough, less common causes include
However, people who accidentally inhale something typically know why they are coughing and tell their doctor unless they have dementia, stroke, or another disorder that causes difficulty communicating.
For chronic cough, less common causes include
People who have dementia or stroke often have trouble swallowing. As a result, they may aspirate small amounts of food and drink, saliva, or stomach contents into their windpipe (trachea). These people may repeatedly aspirate small amounts of these materials without their caregiver's knowledge and may then develop a chronic cough.
Asthma may cause cough. Rarely, the main symptom of asthma is cough rather than wheezing. This type of asthma is called cough-variant asthma.
Not every cough requires immediate evaluation by a doctor. The following information can help people decide whether a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.
In people with a cough, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include
When to see a doctor:
People who have warning signs should see a doctor right away unless the only warning sign is weight loss. Then, a delay of a week or so is not harmful. People who may have inhaled something should also see a doctor right away.
People with an acute cough but no warning signs can wait a few days to see whether the cough stops or becomes less severe, particularly if they also have a congested nose and sore throat, which suggest that the cause may be a URI.
People who have had a chronic cough but no warning signs should see a doctor at some point, but a delay of a week or so is unlikely to be harmful.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the cough and the tests that need to be done (see Table 1: Some Causes and Features of Cough).
Some obvious findings are less helpful in making a diagnosis because they can occur in several disorders that cause cough. For example, whether sputum is yellow or green or thick or thin does not help distinguish bacterial infection from other possible causes. Wheezing may occur with bronchitis, asthma, or other disorders. A cough that brings up blood may be caused by bronchitis, tuberculosis, or lung cancer.
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The need for tests depends on what doctors find during the history and physical examination, particularly whether warning signs are present.
If people have any warning signs, tests usually include
Skin tests, chest x-ray, and sometimes computed tomography (CT) of the chest, and examination and culture of a sputum sample for tuberculosis, and blood tests for HIV infection are also done if people have lost weight or have risk factors for these disorders.
If no warning signs are present, doctors can often make a diagnosis based on the history and physical examination and begin treatment without doing tests. In some people, the examination suggests a diagnosis, but tests are done to confirm it (see Table 1: Some Causes and Features of Cough).
If the examination does not suggest a cause of a cough and no warning signs are present, many doctors try giving people a drug to treat one of two common causes of cough:
If these drugs relieve cough, further testing is usually unnecessary. If cough is not relieved, doctors typically do tests in the following order until a test suggests a diagnosis:
If people have a chronic cough, doctors usually do a chest x-ray. If the cough produces blood, doctors typically send a sputum sample to the laboratory. There, technicians try to grow bacteria in the sample (sputum culture) and use a microscope to check the sample for cancer cells (cytology). Often, if doctors suspect lung cancer (for example, in middle-aged or older people who have smoked for a long time and who have lost weight or have other general symptoms), they also do CT of the chest and sometimes bronchoscopy.
The best way to treat cough is to treat the underlying disorder. For example, antibiotics can be used for pneumonia, and inhalers containing drugs that widen airways (bronchodilators) or corticosteroids can be used for COPD or asthma. Generally, because coughing plays an important role in bringing up sputum and clearing the airways, a cough should not be suppressed. However, if the cough is severe, interferes with sleep, or has certain causes, various treatments may be tried.
There are two basic approaches to people who are coughing:
Cough suppressants include the following.
All opioids suppress cough because they reduce the responsiveness of the cough center in the brain. Codeine is the opioid used most often for cough. Codeine and other opioid cough suppressants may cause nausea, vomiting, and constipation and may be addictive. They can also cause drowsiness, particularly when a person is taking other drugs that reduce concentration (such as alcohol, sedatives, sleep aids, antidepressants, or certain antihistamines). Thus, opioids are not always safe, and doctors usually reserve them for special situations, such as cough that persists despite other treatments and that interferes with sleep.
Dextromethorphan is related to codeine but is technically not an opioid. It also suppresses the cough center in the brain. Dextromethorphan is the active ingredient in many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription cough preparations. It is not addictive and, when used correctly, causes little drowsiness. However, it is frequently abused by people, particularly adolescents, because in high doses, it causes euphoria. Overdose causes hallucinations, agitation, and sometimes coma. Overdose is particularly dangerous for people who are taking drugs for depression called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (see Table: Drug therapy).
Benzonatate is a local anesthetic taken by mouth. It numbs receptors in the lungs that respond to stretching and thus makes the lungs less sensitive to irritation that triggers cough.
Certain people, especially those who are coughing up a large amount of sputum, should limit their use of drugs that suppress cough.
Some doctors recommend expectorants (sometimes called mucolytics) to help loosen mucus by making bronchial secretions thinner and easier to cough up. Expectorants do not suppress a cough, and evidence indicating effectiveness of these drugs is lacking. The most commonly used expectorants are OTC preparations that contain guaifenesin. Doctors may prescribe a saturated solution of potassium iodide to loosen mucus. A small dose of syrup of ipecac may help children, especially those who have croup.
In people with cystic fibrosis, dornase alfa (inhaled recombinant human deoxyribonuclease I) can be used to help thin the pus-filled mucus that results from chronic respiratory infections. This drug does not seem to have an effect in people with chronic bronchitis.
Also, inhaling a saline (salt) solution or inhaling acetylcysteine (for up to a few days) sometimes helps thin excessively thick and troublesome mucus.
Antihistamines, which dry the respiratory tract, have little or no value in treating a cough, except when it is caused by an allergy involving the nose, throat, and windpipe. When coughs have other causes, such as bronchitis, the drying action of antihistamines can be harmful, thickening respiratory secretions and making them difficult to cough up.
Decongestants (such as phenylephrine) that relieve a stuffy nose are only useful for relieving a cough that is caused by postnasal drip.
Steam inhalation (for example, using a vaporizer) is commonly thought to reduce cough. Other topical treatments, such as cough drops, are also popular, but there is no convincing evidence that these other treatments are effective.
Last full review/revision October 2014 by Noah Lechtzin, MD, MHS