Why Am I Coughing? Causes & Remedies

By Chris Bodle, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 8, 2020

If you’ve ever stayed up all night coughing, you know just how frustrating (and uncomfortable) a cough can be. As annoying as it can be, coughing is one of the body’s defense mechanisms against irritants. When you cough, your body is trying to get rid of something that’s irritating your airway.

Coughing can have a variety of causes, from viral or bacterial infections to allergens or other irritants in the airways. Most of the time, coughs resolve on their own within a few weeks without major health issues. However, some people experience chronic coughing, which can go on for several weeks or even months. If your cough is bothering you, if it’s persistent and severe, or if it comes with certain symptoms it’s important to talk to a doctor.

What Is a Cough?

When something is irritating your throat or airways, your brain receives a message from nerves in your throat, prompting your muscles to force out the irritant by coughing. Though it can be frustrating, a cough is actually a healthy response to an irritant in your body. There are several different types of coughs:

  • Acute cough: For most people, coughs are acute, which means they’re short-term and go away on their own. Acute coughs generally begin to improve or totally resolve within two weeks.
  • Chronic cough: Chronic cough occurs when a person’s coughing lasts longer. A cough that lasts between three and eight weeks is considered sub-acute, while a cough that lasts longer than eight weeks is a chronic cough.
  • Dry coughing: Some illnesses or irritants can lead to dry coughs, which are coughs not associated with phlegm or mucus. For example, influenza generally comes with a dry cough rather than a cough with mucus. A dry cough can also be the result of allergies or other irritants in the throat.
  • Coughing with mucus: Coughing with mucus, also known as a productive cough, occurs when the body produces phlegm to help clear the airways. Coughing with mucus can come from the chest, as with pneumonia, and it can also occur due to post-nasal drip in the throat.

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Common Causes of Coughing

A cough is most commonly the body’s reflexive response to an irritant, like an allergen or mucus, but can have a number of causes. These causes differ based on whether the cough is acute or chronic.

Causes of acute cough

Some of the typical causes of an acute cough are:

Causes of chronic cough

Some of the most common causes of a chronic cough include:

Acute coughing is usually associated with irritants from an infection, allergies, or environmental irritants.

Sometimes, cough can be the sign of an underlying medical condition. Some chronic conditions associated with a symptom of persistent coughing include:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Bronchiectasis (a lung condition where excessive widening of bronchial tubes inhibits mucus clearing)
  • Throat disorders
  • Neuromuscular diseases that weaken the coordination of upper airway and swallowing muscles
  • Lung cancer
  • Emphysema
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in a lung artery)
  • Tuberculosis
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Risk Factors and Complications

It’s not common for a cough to cause major medical issues—most of the time, it will resolve on its own within a few weeks. Sometimes, a severe untreated cough can cause complications for as long as the cough is present, including:

Keep in mind that if your cough is the symptom of an underlying medical condition, it probably won’t go away by itself—it may get worse and cause other, more serious symptoms without medical intervention.

Diagnosing Your Cough

It will be important for your doctor to understand your medical history and the course of your symptoms relating to your cough. In addition, a thorough physical exam can be helpful in identifying the cause of your cough.

This might involve your doctor taking your temperature, looking down your throat, and listening to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope.

If there’s no obvious cause for your cough upon a physical exam, your doctor might order additional testing, such as:

  • A chest x-ray to diagnose pneumonia or other lung conditions
  • Blood and skin tests if an allergic response is suspected
  • Phlegm or mucus analysis to check for bacteria

In more severe or persistent cases, a doctor might order a CT scan for a more detailed view of the airways and chest. If GERD or a lung problem are suspected, you might receive a referral to a gastrointestinal or lung specialist.

How to Stop Coughing

If your cough is interfering with your sleep or is causing you pain or discomfort, your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine. Keep in mind that OTC cough preparations don’t treat the underlying cause of your cough; they only help manage the symptoms. In severe cases, your doctor might prescribe a cough suppressant.

Never give a cough medication to a child—there’s no research to show cough medicines work in children, and in kids younger than two years old, cough medicine can be harmful.

If your coughing is related to nasal congestion, talk with your medical provider or a K doctor about trying over-the-counter decongestant, such as:

  • Oxymetazoline (Afrin)
  • Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed or Suphedrin)
  • Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)

If your cough comes from a bacterial infection like pneumonia or bacterial sinusitis, you may receive a prescription for antibiotics—however, antibiotics don’t help with viral infections like the common cold or influenza.

Natural remedies for cough

You can also try at-home remedies to ease your cough, including:

  • Cough drops: Use a cough drop or a hard candy, which may soothe throat irritation.
  • Honey: A teaspoon of honey may help to loosen a cough (never give honey to a child younger than one year old).
  • Humidifiers: Use a cool mist humidifier or take a hot shower to breathe in moisture, which can loosen coughs.
  • Raising your bed: Raise up your bed or sleep with an extra pillow to prevent post-nasal drip, which can lead to a cough.
  • Salt water: Gargle warm salt water to decrease mucus and ease throat irritation.
  • Water: Drink plenty of fluids to thin mucus.
  • Tea: Enjoy a cup of hot, herbal tea to decrease throat irritation.
  • Avoiding irritants: Avoid irritants like smoke, which can exacerbate a cough.

Cough Prevention

Identifying the cause of your cough with a doctor is the first step, since preventing a cough means preventing the cause of the cough altogether. To prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that can lead to coughing, practice hygiene measures such as:

  • Avoiding exposure to sick people
  • Frequent and thorough hand washing
  • Avoiding sharing food or drinks with someone who’s sick
  • Disinfecting your home if someone is ill

To prevent a cough associated with allergens or other irritants, avoid triggers like smoke, dust, or anything you’re allergic to.

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When to See a Doctor

If your cough doesn’t improve within two weeks, contact your physician or a K doctor, who can help you identify the underlying cause and manage your symptoms.

There are other symptoms associated with a cough that warrant medical care. Reach out to your doctor if you develop symptoms such as:

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you begin to cough up blood or experience difficulty breathing.

How K Health Can Help

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Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chris Bodle, MD

Dr. Bodle is a board certified emergency medicine physician. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Emory University. In addition to K Health, he currently works as an Emergency Medicine physician in an Urban, Level 1 Trauma Center in the south east.

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