Chronic Cough


What causes cough?

Coughing has a purpose. It is your body’s way of keeping unwanted stuff from getting into your lungs. Coughing helps clear extra mucus from your airways (small tubes in your lungs). This extra mucus could be caused by smoking, a cold, a lung infection or a lung disease, like asthma or COPD.
A cough may be cause by a condition not related to your lungs, such as heartburn, some medications, or throat irritants (for example, dust, pollution, chemicals in your workplace or home).

How do I know if my cough is normal?  

It is normal to cough occasionally. Coughing with a cold, flu or allergies is normal. 
Coughing is not normal if you are coughing up blood or thick mucus.  If your cough makes you very tired, or light-headed, or causing chest or stomach pain, or causing you to “wet” yourself, you should talk to your doctor to find out the cause. 

What about smoker’s cough? 

Smoking can cause chronic cough, but a nagging smoker’s cough isn’t normal. If you are a smoker, get help to quit smoking. Your local Lung Association can explain different ways to quit, including nicotine replacement therapy, medicines, counseling and support groups.
You may be so used to your "smoker’s cough" that you can't tell if it has changed.  Are you coughing more than you used to? For longer at a time? Or has your cough changed? Are you coughing up streaks of blood or more phlegm (mucus)? Any of these may be a sign that something is wrong.

A nagging "smoker’s cough" should not be ignored. A chronic cough in a smoker or former smoker may be a sign of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis). Discuss your cough with your doctor.

I quit smoking but I still have a cough

Smokers and former smokers are at risk of developing COPD. COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – the new name for emphysema and chronic bronchitis. A cough that has lasted a long time is a symptom of COPD. A simple breathing test called spirometry is used to help diagnose COPD. Ask your doctor about spirometry.

Why should I see the doctor now? Can't it wait?

If you have COPD or another breathing disease, it's important to catch it early and treat it as soon as possible. If you get early treatment for COPD, you can slow down the damage to your lungs. This means you'll have fewer symptoms and you'll be more able to do your regular activities and hobbies. When COPD is diagnosed late, patients have more severe symptoms and the treatments do not work as well.

If you have any questions about COPD, call our free helpline at 1-866-717-2673.

I have asthma but I still cough 

If you are coughing a lot, it could be a sign that your asthma is not as well controlled as it could be. See you doctor and ask for help.
Here are some other signs that your asthma might not be under control:

  • You wake up at night because of coughing, wheezing or feeling short of breath more than once a week.
  • Your rescue medicine (blue puffer) doesn't work quickly or completely to relieve your asthma symptoms.
  • You are using your rescue medicine (blue puffer) more than three times a week.
  • Your asthma symptoms are stopping you from doing regular activities like exercise.

If you have any of these signs, see your doctor. Follow your doctor's advice.
If you have more questions about your cough and asthma, call us at 1-866-717-2673.

Can I just take cough medicine to make my cough go away?

Unless your doctor recommends it, don’t use over-the-counter cough medicine. They won’t treat your cough; they’ll just hide the symptoms. Once your doctor determines what is causing the cough, he or she can treat the cause. 

Can my doctor give me medicine to make my cough go away?

A cough is not a disease itself, rather a cough that lasts three weeks or longer is your body’s way of telling you there is something wrong. The first thing your doctor should do is determine what is causing you to cough. Once your doctor determines what is causing the cough, he or she can treat the cause rather than the cough itself. 

How will my doctor know what is causing my cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer?

First your doctor will ask about your medical history. He or she might ask you questions such as whether you have allergies, what  medications you are currently taking, whether you smoke or smoked in the past, if you use chemicals at home or work, and if you have been sick lately. Before you go to your doctor, write down everything you want to tell him or her. 
Your doctor should do a physical exam and may also order a chest X-ray.
Your doctor may also order lung function tests (spirometry). Find a lung testing clinic in your area.
Your doctor may refer you to a breathing specialist (a respirologist).
Once the doctor knows the cause of your cough, he or she will recommend a treatment.
Most of the time, you can get effective treatment for your coughs. If you see the doctor and get help early on, it will be easier to treat your cough.

How does acid reflux (GERD) cause cough?

GERD is when stomach juice comes up into your esophagus (tube that carries food from your mouth and throat to your stomach).  If your stomach juices reach your throat, it can cause irritation and cause you to cough. If you have a cough from GERD you may not have heartburn and your only symptom may be cough.  

Can you have more than one cause of cough?

Yes, you can have more than one cause of cough. In fact you can have two or three causes at the same time. This is why it is important to work with your doctor to find the causes. 

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Page Last Updated: 20/11/2014